Editorial: Island County Commissioners need a freeze

The Island County commissioners are doing the right thing in studying the possibility of reining in their own salaries during dire economic times.

The three commissioners have been slashing jobs and benefits in all areas of county government for the past two years as tax revenues have plummeted during the great recession. Yet their own salaries are automatically set to increase by 5 percent every other year. If they don’t act soon, the term “disgruntled employee” will describe everyone else in county government who has been financially hurt during the recession.

The 5 percent increase every two years seemed reasonable when it was adopted as it barely kept up with inflation. But now the commissioners should freeze their salaries until tax revenues start arcing up again. This move will effectively freeze the salaries of all elected county officials, except the judges, since other salaries are tied to the commissioners’. But at this point, they should all be happy just to have a job.

The question of how much a public official is worth has tormented such officials for years. They hate to set their own salaries because the public always reacts negatively to raises. So they tend to put it in code to adjust automatically from time to time. That way, they don’t have to vote on it.

Each commissioner presently receives $78,496 annually, plus benefits. This is far more than the average person working in Island County makes and easily exceeds what elected state representatives make. Legislators receive $42,106 annually, but most have other jobs. They meet full-time for only a few months each year, while the county commissioners go to work every day and spend many nights and weekends at county functions. Their salaries are probably about right for their duties and responsibilities.

State salaries are set by a commission set up through a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1987. Before then, legislators took a lot criticism while setting their own salaries. It’s not an issue now because their salaries have been frozen for the last couple of years, and the commission doesn’t meet again until 2011.

The county commissioners don’t need a fancy commission to set their salaries. Just amend the code to allow a salary freeze until the economy improves and other county workers see pay and benefit increases. When the time comes they’ll probably take some heat for raising their own salaries, but it will also mean that better times have finally arrived.

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