The largest bargaining unit of Spokane County employees will soon ask for their first cost-of-living pay increase in four years. That request will come amid a dwindling budget and uncertainty about how much of the county’s kitty must go to a deputy sheriffs union that has been asking for a new contract since 2012.
“Normally, we’re about enhancing wages and benefits,” said Gordon Smith Jr., representative of the Washington State Council of County and City Employees, which represents many of the so-called “non-uniformed” county employees, or those not involved in detention or law enforcement. “In the recession, we turned to saving jobs.”
That concession resulted in what has turned into a four-year wage freeze, Smith said, though employees have received lump payments and, in the most recent agreement that extended the terms of the 2010 contract, monthly bonuses based on years of service. The county has shed 55 jobs since the 2010 contract, though new positions were added in 2014.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke points out that employees continue to benefit from a generous medical insurances package, where 90 percent or more of costs are covered by the county. Under the cheapest plan offered, single employees pay a little less than $20 monthly for medical and about $4 for dental coverage.
The amount paid by the county for health and dental care, as well as other benefits, adds significantly to the number of employees who receive total pay and perks above six figures.
The county reports 145 of its employees earn a base salary of more than $100,000. If the value of fringe benefits is included the roster of employees with total compensation exceeding $100,000 balloons to 525 out of a workforce of about 1,950.
Mielke said the county is not seeking to cut those benefits to free up money for a potential wage increase. The hurdle, he said, is ongoing labor negotiations with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association. The county and the deputies union will begin arbitration this week. County officials are unsure how many of the contract requests made by law enforcement will be approved, which will affect how much money is available for raises in other departments, Mielke said.
“County employees, I think, have sacrificed greatly,” he said. “They’ve tried to figure out how to continue providing services with fewer people. I’m extremely appreciative of that.”
Union points to management raises
Wally Loucks, president of the Spokane Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the county has been “intransigent” in its dealings with the union, refusing to budge on the issue of back wages deputies are seeking after working under the terms of a contract that expired in 2010.
“That’s a hurdle for the guys psychologically, because they feel that the work that they performed in those years was worthy of a pay raise,” Loucks said. Fewer deputies have been asked to provide the same level of service, he said.
County employees making six figures in base pay include many in leadership positions. They include Chief Civil Attorney Jim Emacio, Chief Executive Officer Marshall Farnell and several undersheriffs, who are currently making more than Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. The sheriff earns about $117,000, as set by county law.
Smith, who represents non-uniformed employees, notes that some managers have gotten pay raises since 2010.
Some of those raises were required by county law; Knezovich’s total salary increase of about $1,000 from 2012 to 2014 was dictated by the county’s Salary Commission, a 10-member board that decided to average the salary of the Spokane County sheriff with the pay of sheriffs in Pierce, Clark, Kitsap, Snohomish, Yakima and Benton counties. Prosecutor Steve Tucker got a 2 percent pay bump in September 2013 and chief public defender Thomas Krzyminski a 1.9 percent raise, based on the salaries set for district court judges by the Washington Legislature.
The county also has added at least one leadership position amid the pay freeze. In 2013, the commission hired John Dickson as chief operations officer at a salary of $112,000. The position had been vacant for four years. That hire was made, commissioners said, to improve efficiencies in county government and stretch every dollar of revenue. They said they’ve already seen the results of Dickson’s work in cost savings and improved services.
Other pay changes include what are termed salary “adjustments” or changes in job classification for employees not represented by unions, Smith said.
“That’s really tough to swallow,” he said. “We felt like we did our part and shouldn’t the pain be felt all around?”
Deputies value benefit levels
Tim O’Brien, head of the county’s Labor Relations department, said he recognizes that pain.
“There’s no question that employees have diligently shared in the sacrifices that, I think, most public agencies have had to go through,” he said.
O’Brien said the city of Spokane continues to annex property- and sales-tax-rich locations that affect county collections. General revenue to the county since 2009 has slipped by $21 million. The result has been about $8 million in less spending each year, according to budget numbers published last December. Total payroll, with benefits, has fluctuated in the past three years but saw a slight uptick to about $157 million in 2013.
Yet Smith said building permits continue to increase as the country claws its way back from the recession, and sales and property tax revenues are rebounding.
“Despite all that, thus far, the county has not shown appreciation or reciprocity for the sacrifices that we agreed to over the past four years,” Smith said.
O’Brien echoed Mielke, saying much of the negotiating will hinge on the outcome of arbitration with the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which begins Tuesday.
The deputies union has been holding out, in part, for continued medical coverage that includes no paycheck deduction for medical care for deputies without families. Those with families pay roughly $80 to $85 monthly for coverage, according to county officials.
Union President Loucks said the different benefits package for deputies made sense because of the hazards of the job.
“How many secretaries have been shot in the line of duty? How many road workers have been shot in the line of duty?” Loucks said. “I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but it’s not an inherent risk in those positions.”
Mielke said the outcome of those negotiations, and whether the Deputy Sheriff’s Association is given the back raises it says it is due dating to 2012, will ultimately affect who gets a raise, if anyone, and how much it will be.
“I can’t write a check if there’s no money in the checkbook,” Mielke said.