Most Kootenai County sheriff deputies and jailers are getting an immediate raise as the county commission works to fix an inequitable pay system that has caused an exodus of staff.
The commission announced Monday – the same day it released the county’s preliminary budget of nearly $70 million – that it will use $1 million to put about 127 certified deputies in a progressive pay scale where each will receive an increase each year.
Currently there is no pay matrix with specifics for how sheriff’s deputies can reach top pay.
None of the sworn deputies is at the top pay grade, and that includes the previous undersheriff who retired in June after 32 years of service. Some less-experienced employees are paid more than deputies with additional seniority and training.
The new pay system is supposed to fix what sheriff’s officials have described as a “meltdown.” It will have the most impact on jail deputies, who will get about 7.5 percent more and bring their pay in line with what patrol deputies currently make.
The jail is short about 12 deputies, and jail employees have been working mandatory overtime for 18 months. So far this year, overtime pay is $120,000 over budget.
Sheriff Rocky Watson, who didn’t know about the commission’s decision until shortly before an afternoon press conference, said his employees appreciate any improvement.
“We won’t know if it solves the problem until each deputy sits down and decides, ‘How will this affect me,’ ” Watson said. “We just don’t know if it’s enough.”
The new pay system doesn’t apply to Watson or newly hired Undersheriff Tad Leach.
The department pleaded with the commission to put $2.6 million into the budget that begins Oct. 1 to stop losing patrol deputies and jailers to higher-paying jobs in Coeur d’Alene and Spokane.
The commission said Monday that it can only afford $900,000 to start fixing the pay discrepancy in the new budget. It will use $150,000 from the current budget to cover pay increases for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. That cash is from four deputy positions that have been open for 18 months.
The $900,000 proposed in the new budget will use almost all of the county’s 3 percent increase in property taxes, or $921,430, allowed each year by law.
The commission rejected proposals to tap $2.1 million in extra property taxes that it has not collected in previous years. Commission Chairman Rick Currie said the commission opted against taking the “foregone” taxes because county property taxes will increase by about $4 million next year. That’s because the local-option sales tax that was going to pay for the last jail expansion also included an equal amount of property tax relief. After county voters rejected a proposal in 2005 for another jail expansion, that half-cent sales tax went away, meaning property taxes increased by $2.5 million in fiscal year 2006. They will increase by another $2.5 million this year.
Initially, Watson wanted the commission to use the foregone taxes. But he said Monday it’s the commissioners’ job to make the salary decisions and he won’t criticize.
The commission couldn’t calculate how much salary increase each deputy will receive because it won’t be the same for every employee. The commission said the idea is to ensure each deputy is paid the same for the number of years worked and the level of training.
“I hope this gives them some incentive to stay with us,” Commissioner Rich Piazza said, adding that deputies can now calculate how much they can make in nine years, the top of the pay scale.
Sergeants could reach top pay within six years, while it would take lieutenants and captains five years.
Besides the deputy salaries, the proposed county budget also includes about $908,000 to give county employees 3 percent merit increases and about 13 new positions, including two in the county planning and building department, a deputy prosecutor and a nurse for the jail.
Rising health insurance costs will force the county to pay an additional $805,500 next year for the same level of benefits. The commission opted not to pass any of that additional cost to county workers, which Finance Director David McDowell equates to about a 3 percent salary benefit or about $35 per two-week pay period for each employee.
The budget also includes about $1.5 million in new growth. That’s based on the value of new construction in the county, which is $804 million.
Property values in Kootenai County increased an average of about 13 percent. Many people with waterfront and views saw even bigger increases.
But increased property values don’t automatically translate to higher taxes. Total tax bills also depend on the budgets of other taxing districts, such as schools, cities and fire districts. The typical homeowner is included in seven to 11 taxing districts.
The budget numbers won’t become final until after the commission has a public hearing on the proposed budget Sept. 4.