Kootenai County commissioners on Tuesday OK’d spending $61,000 for a wage study that could be complete by spring – in time to adjust salaries for the next fiscal year.
In the meantime, the county proposes tapping into foregone taxes to help ease the county’s salary woes. Foregone taxes are taxes the county didn’t collect in past years, though it had authority to do so.
Originally, commissioners planned to conduct the study in time for wages to be adjusted for its fiscal year 2005 budget. But controversy over the plan and heated election-year politics, commissioners said, led to a decision to postpone the study.
Even as they prepared for Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioners Rick Currie and Dick Panabaker said they were fielding angry calls about the wage study. Some suggested the county conduct its own study or simply look at wages in other cities to determine what Kootenai County employees should be paid.
Both Currie and Panabaker – Commissioner Gus Johnson wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting – said they were hesitant to fund pay raises without first studying the issue.
The study came about as a means to stop the high exodus of county employees, especially those working as sheriff’s deputies and 911 dispatchers.
Higher wages are just a short drive away. Deputies in Kootenai County start at $14 an hour. In Spokane, starting pay is $18.58 and the cap is about $5 higher than in Kootenai County.
Currie compared spending money on a wage study to getting a car’s oil changed. The cost, he said, was minimal compared to the value of the car.
“This $60,000, to me, is maintenance,” he said. “It’s peanuts. The problem is those peanuts are our taxpayer dollars.”
Outsourcing the study made the most sense for several reasons, Currie said.
Finding out what other cities and counties pay employees in similar positions isn’t as easy as one might think, he said.
“You cannot just call up somebody and get that information,” he said. “What might be a technician for us might be a supervisor for somebody else or a laborer for somebody else.”
And having employees do their own wage study could be problematic, he added. “To me, that is asking the fox to recommend a lock for the chicken coop.”
Michele Sandberg, human resources director for Post Falls, said the city decided to outsource its most recent salary study to make sure the results were objective. The results showed city of Post Falls employees were being paid 25 percent below market.
Like the county, Sandberg said the city has the challenge of staying competitive with Washington’s higher wages to keep its employees.
She said the city was recommended to conduct large salary studies every five years, along with smaller, benchmark surveys each year.
Kootenai County’s last wage study was 12 years ago.
Today the county will publish its proposed budget for fiscal year 2004-05. The county is budgeting a 3 percent increase in its salary dollars, or about $700,000, to be distributed by county department heads as merit-based increases. To help fund the pay increases for sheriff’s deputies, jail staff and 911 dispatchers, the county plans to take $847,000 in foregone taxes.
However, because the county is expecting up to $1 million in new revenue from the half-cent sales tax, and because property values have appreciated more than $500 million countywide, property tax rates are not increasing – even with the county collecting foregone taxes, according to county officials. Under the proposed budget, the property tax levy rate would decrease 4.3 percent, meaning homeowners whose property has not been reassessed upward in value should see property taxes decrease.
Both commissioners said Tuesday that they didn’t want to collect any of the foregone taxes, but believed there was no other way to fund the pay increases.
“Nobody wanted to take the foregone,” Currie said. “It was not something we wanted to do, but we have a major problem.”
A public hearing on the proposed budget is planned for Sept. 7.
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