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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Baumgartner and French disagree on pay raises for some Spokane County leaders; commissioners will receive 3 percent raises this year and next

UPDATED: Sat., March 16, 2019

Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French, pictured September 12, 2017, say they don’t have the power to loosen statewide measures designed to slow the spread of coronavirus. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County commissioners will receive a 6 percent raise divided over two years, an independent citizen salary commission decided last week.

It also set wages at a slightly lower level for four other elected offices, but Spokane County’s treasurer says his pay should be equal to commissioners.

The Spokane County Citizens’ Commission on Salaries voted March 6 to increase the county commissioners’ salary by 3 percent in 2019 and another 3 percent in 2020, bringing their annual salaries to $114,013 and $117,434, respectively.

It also voted to set salaries of assessor, auditor, clerk and treasurer positions at 95 percent of county commissioners’ salaries. The annual salaries of the four elected officials are currently $105,158.

The salary commission – which includes four members appointed by the county commissioners and six members randomly selected from voter rolls – considered data including numbers from counties considered comparable to Spokane County: Benton, Kitsap, Thurston, Pierce and Clark.

The group interviewed Spokane County commissioners about their job duties and responsibilities, and questioned them on the extent of their workweek. They also met with the four county elected officials to discuss their budgets, duties and how their position impacts the overall functions of the county.

Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner called for compensation parity between county commissioners and other elected officials at a Feb. 27 salary commission meeting. He pledged to donate any pay raise he would receive to charity.

Baumgartner said while he was satisfied with his salary, treasurers in peer counties are paid about $16,000 more annually. He added that elected officials’ salaries in peer counties often match or exceed the salaries of their county commissioners.

Baumgartner said by raising the treasurer’s salary, it could attract more candidates to run for elected office in the future.

“The reason people run for office is not solely motivated by money,” he said. “But I think Spokane hasn’t had enough candidates in our county elections and I think that’s something for the salary commission to look at.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French wrote a letter to the salary commission claiming Baumgartner’s statements were inaccurate and misleading.

“Statements like ‘I intend to donate the difference to charity’ demonstrates his lack of understanding of the process and is more of a campaign proclamation offering no substantive contribution to the process and demeans the integrity of other elected officials, who desire to make their charitable contributions privately and without fanfare,” French wrote. “While I don’t know the motivation for this statement, it appears to be designed for his next political campaign for whatever office he plans on seeking next.”

French, who contended that peer counties have more commissioners and staff, suggested the salary commission compare the cost of governance between those counties and Spokane County, which operates “leaner than our peer counties resulting in the commissioners doing more of their own work than relying on staff.”

The salary commission noted that county commissioners provide direction – along with the county’s chief executive and budget officers – regarding wage proposals and stability of the county budget.

The group also debated if the elected leaders should get raises more in line with what were approved in contracts for many county employees who are receiving an annual 2 percent raise as a result of a three-year collective bargaining agreement enacted in 2018.

Salary commission member Jeff Nelson said questions might arise if commissioners were awarded more than a 2 percent raise per year.

Nelson, who represents organized labor on the salary commission, said state workers are underpaid, about 25 percent less than in private industry.

“So literally, all the state workers are underpaid. But, to the point, we aren’t doing this for the money. We are doing this for the service. We’re doing it for the public and helping people out,” he said. “I think county commissioners are pretty much the same. I think a lot of people are in this to serve and I am therefore leaning more towards the 2 percent for 2019 and 2 percent for 2020, keeping in mind the contract with union.”

The commissioners received a 19 percent raise in 2017, previously making $93,000 a year, and had gone without a raise since 2006.

County employees expressed frustration at that time about commissioners’ pay raises because they endured a four-year wage freeze and minimal wage increases until they negotiated their own agreement in 2017.

“My hope is that the commissioners will treat their employees as fairly as the (salary) commission treats them,” said Gordon Smith, who represents most unionized Spokane County employees for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees. “They will very soon have the opportunity to demonstrate that because the county contracted with an outside firm to conduct a countywide wage study that will be completed sometime next month. My mindset is to withhold judgment until I see how they handle the wage study.”

The union representing Spokane County’s deputy prosecutors launched a “public pressure campaign” last year to kickstart contract negotiations for wage increases. The union, Local 1553-PA, filed a complaint with Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission, stating the county refused to bargain in good faith and mentioned county commissioners’ 19 percent pay raise as a basis for higher pay.

Smith said deputy prosecutors are part of the wage study, adding that they are still in contract negotiations with the county.

“We’re not done yet,” Smith said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

County commissioners have yet to vote on salaries for elected officials as set by the salary commission.

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