Weeks after the elimination of the equivalent of 26 jobs, some question why Spokane County continues to give automatic raises to some of its highest paid officials and employees.
Gordon Smith Jr., staff representative for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, is among those raising concerns. His union represents about 1,200 of the 2,000 county employees.
“When times are tough and budgets are being cut, the fairest thing to do is spread the pain around,” Smith said. “It can be a rub to be tightening belts in our ranks when managers or elected officials are not doing the same.”
Public Defender John Rodgers, who didn’t ask for a raise, recently got one after human resources Director Cathy Malzahn told county leaders that Rodgers was paid less than three other chief deputy prosecutors.
Based on a 2007 vote, Rodgers’ salary was set at 85 percent of the salary of county Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who makes $145,271 – a $30,000 pay increase since his 2006 re-election.
Commissioner Bonnie Mager argued that Rodgers and Tucker should be paid equally.
“I see no reason why we pay less for attorneys who represent those who are innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
But Commissioner Todd Mielke said at a public meeting last week that the prosecutor is a constitutional officer who faces re-election. “There is no job security. And if he is not elected, there is no unemployment benefit,” he said.
Mager said she didn’t buy that argument. But she sided with Mielke and Commissioner Mark Richard in the vote to pay Rodgers 95 percent of Tucker’s salary, or $138,007 a year, a raise of $14,481.
Rodgers, who made sure the commissioners knew the raise was not his idea, was joined by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who got a 2.45 percent raise based on the same 2007 decision that set the salaries for Tucker and other elected officials.
Knezovich automatically gets a raise if the average of the salaries of sheriffs from six other Washington counties goes up.
“Because of the budget, I didn’t want to take a raise,” said Knezovich, who now makes $110,799 a year. But he accepted the money “because the resolution is written the way it is.”
He also pointed out that if he hadn’t taken the raise, next year’s could be even larger. And both undersheriffs and Spokane Valley Police Chief Rick Van Leuven already made more than Knezovich.
“When you are looking at the (budget) situations we are facing, I think we should take a look at these automatic pay raises,” Knezovich said. “I would have preferred to have … not taken that raise.”
While commissioners enacted the automatic increases, they have been the last to benefit from those decisions.
Since 2000, commissioners’ salaries have been set by a 10-member salary commission. But Malzahn said that board hasn’t met since it increased the commissioner pay to $93,000 in 2006.
“We need to revise that committee,” Malzahn said, adding that Chief Deputy Civil Attorney Jim Emacio is working on it. “We’d like to set the dates to clearly outline when that committee meets and go forward from there.”
Emacio said the salary commission convenes at the request of the commission chairperson or a majority vote. He hopes to change the language of the resolution so the salary commission meets every two years to set the salary for the commissioners.
The county will meet this month to address the issue, and Mager said that may be the time to ask whether it’s prudent to continue with automatic pay raises. “When I came to office, I made the promise to my constituents that I would not accept a raise in the first four years,” she said.
Mager, along with Richard and Mielke, also receives a $595 monthly car allowance. Mager said she’s in the process of giving that money back.
“In fact, I questioned the whole issue of … county commissioners getting a car allowance. I think if we all had given up the car allowance, it could have saved half a job,” she said.
Richard said he still supports the automatic pay increases despite the state of the economy. Before using the salary commission, county leaders set the salaries of other elected officials. In one case, commissioners gave raises to all but one elected official “based on a breakdown in a relationship,” Richard said.
“Certainly, the budget and the economy plays into the whole discussion,” he said. “The salary commission’s function is to analyze the current market. So that should resolve itself.”
He pointed out that county leaders are not guaranteed a raise just because the salary commission is convened. However, he didn’t know whether that board is allowed to ask for a reduction in commissioner pay.
“It takes politics out of it,” Richard said.
But Smith, the union representative, said that hasn’t stopped elected officials from using politics during pay negotiations for county employees. He pointed to the decision to use county salary comparisons to set Knezovich’s salary.
“What we generally have heard is they are content to pay Spokane County salaries that are about 85 percent of like-sized counties around the state. Then we see 95 percent for department heads,” Smith said. “If that is going to be the business model, why not apply it to all and not just the elected officials?”
Some employees, such as corrections officers, firefighters and deputies, are required by state law to have salaries similar to those in other counties. But that doesn’t apply to other employees, Smith said. “I think as the economy changes, systems like this absolutely do need to be reviewed,” he said.
During the budget process, the county eliminated the equivalent of 26.5 full-time jobs. Most of those positions were unfilled, but about 10 employees were let go, Smith said.
“Even though there weren’t a ton of people who actually lost jobs, losing positions is also significant,” he said. “But if (elected officials) were making sacrifices as well … that would be appreciated.”