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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Employees upset about Spokane County commissioners’ pay raises

FILE – Spokane County Commissioner Al French, right, converses with commission candidate Nancy McLaughlin on Feb. 22, 2016. At left, county attorney Jim Emacio meets with Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County employees aren’t happy about pay raises recently given to the county’s elected leaders, but some hope the raises will come in handy during this year’s contract negotiations.

An independent panel of citizens in March gave the county commissioners a 19 percent raise, bringing their annual salaries to $110,693. Other elected officials such as the county auditor and treasurer now make $105,158, or 95 percent of the commissioners’ salary.

“Many, probably most, county employees were nothing short of infuriated,” Gordon Smith, who represents a half-dozen county labor unions, wrote in an email, “which is completely understandable having endured a four-year wage freeze and minimal cost-of-living increases the past three years, while consistently being told by the (commissioners) that they cannot do better given the county is strapped for cash.”

But, Smith wrote, “the commissioners will soon have the opportunity to treat their employees as fairly as the salary commission treated them, given contract negotiations will be beginning soon.”

The Citizens’ Commission on Salaries includes six members randomly selected from voter rolls and four members appointed by the county commissioners. Washington law states, “Of these four members, one shall be selected from each of the following four sectors in the county: business, professional personnel management, legal profession and organized labor.”

But Smith and Colin Depner, the vice president of a union representing county engineers and technicians, pointed out there was nobody on the salary commission representing “organized labor.”

The person tapped to fill that seat was Kyle England, a human resources manager at Kaiser Aluminum – precisely the wrong person for the salary commission job, according to Smith and Depner.

Depner, who makes about $64,000 a year as a sewer engineering technician, said it’s “a pretty big stretch” to equate a management job with an organized labor position. The salary commission seat in 2005 was filled by a unionized BNSF engineer.

England said he didn’t know why he was picked to serve on the salary commission, or that there were seats reserved for specific industries. And besides, he never went to any of the commission’s hearings. His day job was keeping him too busy, he said.

County spokesman Jared Webley said England was picked because he “had significant experience in personnel management and working with organized labor,” a fact that should satisfy the requirements of state law.

Webley said no one took England’s place after he resigned from the salary commission. England had initially been chosen by the county’s chief executive, Gerry Gemmill, and human resources director, Tim Hansen.

The county commissioners, Republicans Al French, Shelly O’Quinn and Josh Kerns, referred all questions about the salary commission to Webley.

Smith, the union representative, pointed out that the commissioners could have rejected their own raises outright, although that also would have blocked pay increases for the other elected officials.

Smith said Spokane County salaries have tended to hover around 80 percent of those in comparable counties. He called that “an arbitrary percentage” and said it’s frustrating the commissioners “did not apply their 20 percent discount to their own wages.”

Although wages were frozen for four years starting in 2011, the county’s largest union, Courthouse Employees 1553, has received seven cost-of-living increases totaling 16.5 percent since 2006, said Hansen, the county’s human resources director.

The county commissioners went without raises during that same period, largely because the recession squeezed resources and there was no money for potential salary increases, Hansen said.

Delores Humiston, the chairwoman of the salary commission, said the recent 19 percent pay raise seemed appropriate after the stagnant period. Only one of the nine salary commission members didn’t vote for the raise, she said.

“We felt we had good information,” Humiston said.