Are salaries of Island County workers too high?
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
July 9, 2010 · 4:26 PM
A $1.2 million hole in Island County’s current expense fund, which will likely swell to $2 million in a few years, has sparked debate over how the county spends money.
A handful of residents have argued that at a time of 9 percent unemployment in the county, local government should cut spending instead of raising taxes. Some want to target the salaries and so-called “gold-plated benefits” of county employees for cuts.
The statistics offer a complicated picture of county salaries and benefits. The county consists of 21 departments with employees in six different unions, as well as non-represented staff.
The highest paid employee, excluding elected officials and department heads, in 2009 was a road deputy who grossed $98,000. In fact, the top five earners were in the sheriff’s office last year.
Undersheriff Kelly Mauck explained that well over $30,000 of the top-paid deputy’s salary came from overtime pay. A significant portion of overtime pay, he said, is funded by state grants for the marine safety unit and special traffic emphasis patrols.
Mauck also pointed out that some overtime is unavoidable for deputies. They are often called to testify in court. Other times, a deputy can’t leave an emergency situations just because his or her shift is over.
On the other end, the lowest-paid, full-time employee was a cartography assistant who grossed $28,000. Two other employees — an administrative assistant and a road maintenance worker — also earned less than $30,000.
The county has a number of different medical insurance options available for staff members, though non-union employees are limited to the less expensive programs. Over the last few years, the county’s cost of health care has skyrocketed.
According to interim Human Resources Director John McFarland, the county currently pays 85 percent of the premium costs for the Group Health Options Plan. For an employee with a family covered under the plan, for example, the total monthly premium is $1,848. The county pays $1,571 and the employee pays $277.
Also, the total monthly premium for dental insurance is $68. The county pays $58 of that while the employee pays $10.
In all, the county will pay $19,548 a year for medical and dental insurance for an employee with a family covered under the plans.
Employees who aren’t in a union are on the less-expensive Value Plan offered by the Washington Counties Insurance Fund. There are various levels of coverage and premium rates, but in no case does the county pay premiums in excess of 85 percent of the Group Health Plan.
Everyone involved seems to agree that the costs under the Group Health Options Plan are out of hand.
“It’s astronomical,” said Vinnie O’Connor, the staff representative for the county’s largest union. “We understand that. We know that.”
The county is in the process of negotiating with the unions, McFarland said, and the medical plans are on the table. O’Connor said that both the county and the union are researching medical plans to find a better deal.
“The goal is to find a plan with comparable benefits that will save the county money,” he said.
Last year, the union members voted to cut their workweek by 2.5 hours instead of going to the less-expensive medical plan that the commissioners placed non-represented employees on.
When it comes to salaries, everyone involved seems to agree that Island County employees make less when compared to employees in neighboring counties, especially Skagit and Snohomish counties. It’s been a perennial complaint that elected officials and department heads have made to commissioners.
“With the low wages, the county has become a training ground for young people just getting out of college, but then they leave,” O’Connor said.
A $98,000 salary for a deputy may seem generous, but it’s significantly less than top pay in past years; the sheriff’s office has cut overtime as part of budget reductions. Mauck said the sheriff’s office has had a historical problem with retaining deputies because counties like Skagit and Snohomish pay significantly more, while the cost of living is basically the same.
In fact, the city of Oak Harbor pays police more. A deputy who was laid off early this year, for example, is now an Oak Harbor police officer and earns more than a 20-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, according to Detective Ed Wallace.
But some have argued that Island County shouldn’t be comparing salaries with the much different, larger counties or cities, which traditionally pay more. In past negotiations with the sheriff’s guild, the county representatives have argued that wages should be compared to those of counties with similar populations, which included several in Eastern Washington. In that case, the salaries were more comparable.
Also, former commissioners have said that the aesthetics of the island and the quality of life should make up for the low pay when it comes to attracting and retaining talent.
Of course, there’s plenty of people who feel that county salaries, when compared to private-sector wages, are bloated. But again, the picture is complex. The average per capita personal income in Island County was $30,665 in 2005, according to the Washington Employment Security Department. That’s not much more than what the lowest-paid, full-time county employee makes.
Three years ago, the county did a comparison of salaries for professionals — like lawyers, engineers and nurses — and found that the county was significantly behind the private sector.
“We are talking about people with skills and degrees,” Commissioner Angie Homola said. “People should be paid their value. This constant turn-over is not cost effective.”
Who makes the most, least?
Here’s a look at the five highest earners among Island County employees in 2009, excluding elected officials and department heads:
Sheriff’s road deputy $98,003.37
Sheriff’s road deputy $92,514.72
Sheriff’s deputy lieutenant $87,310.66
Sheriff’s road deputy $85,841.56
Sheriff’s deputy sergeant $82,455.83
The five lowest-paid employees are listed below.
Administrative assistant $30,839.76
Vault/microfilm clerk $30,530.48
Administrative assistant $29,523.62
Maintenance worker road $29,364.48
Cartography assistant $28,006.70Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.