Wages will be key in upcoming county budget talks

There’s a good chance that just about any Grays Harbor County public employee who can ask for a raise will ask for one this year as the county commissioners start to figure out next year’s budget.

The county commissioners begin bargaining discussions with the county’s unions later this month. Nearly every union contract is up for negotiation when it comes to wages and benefits this year — and it’s been some time since some of them have seen a raise.

Grays Harbor Coroner Dan Burns expects his request for a raise to generate some discussion, too.

Burns is seeking a $6,000 raise to his $59,399 salary, which works out to about a 10 percent hike.

“My request is about fairness and equity,” Burns said. “The coroner’s position is the lowest paid-elected official in all of Grays Harbor County.”

The assessor, auditor, clerk and treasurer all make $72,804. And, Burns notes, he makes less than deputy department heads and other department heads all over the county. The fair manager makes $70,392, and he got a raise last year.

“My request is to bring the coroner’s salary closer to at least above deputy positions,” Burns said.

He added that the position may have been considered part-time at one point, but it’s been a full-time job for him.

“My position is the only full-time job at the Coroner’s Office,” he added. “My three part-time deputy coroners combined are currently funded at 0.8 of one full time position, and yet we provide services 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.”

Burns is also seeking a 3.6 percent raise for his deputy coroners.

County Commissioner Mike Wilson said he thinks Burns makes a valid point and the conversations certainly should happen as he and his fellow commissioners start their budget talks for next year. Those public meetings are slated to begin in October.

“I know that Coroner John Bebich, who was a good friend, was on call at all hours and I’m sure Dan Burns is just as busy,” Wilson said. “The position isn’t part-time anymore. I’m certain of that. …

“I do think raises will be a factor this year, among just about anyone who’s out there,” Wilson added.

All of those requests will have to be balanced against keeping expenses relatively the same as they were last year and bringing up the reserve balance to meet State Auditor expectations, Wilson said.

Burns isn’t alone in requesting a raise. Just the other week, Utilities Director Kevin Varness told the commissioners they ought to give a $3,000 raise to Environmental Health Director Jeff Nelson. Nelson hasn’t received a raise in a few years, even though he was entitled to one through “step increases” that award raises based on experience and longevity, Varness said. County budget records show he makes $69,972.

Sheriff Mike Whelan is requesting a 5 percent raise for himself, as well, boosting his salary by about $4,493 to $94,351. It’s a raise Whelan will never see, he says, even though he’s put off requesting raises since 2007 in order to “share the pain” of his employees. He’s retiring next month.

Whelan’s last budget request also asks for 5 percent raises for his undersheriff, deputy director of emergency management and the newly hired director of security, as well as his exempt staff.

Whelan says it’s been at least four years since many of the exempt positions have seen a raise. The exempt chief criminal deputy position gets $82,404 — but no overtime. Compare that to one of his two patrol lieutenants, who county records show make a base of $83,178, or a sergeant, who makes a base $76,447 — all with the opportunity for overtime.

“It’s fundamentally not fair for an administrator to be put in that position,” Whelan said.

Only a small group of county employees have received raises recently. There’s some of the exempt employees, mainly department heads or executive staff, who have contracts with the county, specifically calling for raises. A small group of employees all around the county have qualified — from the Fairgrounds to the Budget Office, although many more exempt staff have not.

Plus, the Corrections Division of the Teamsters Union received a 3.4 percent raise this year, although that contract, like many others, is up for negotiation this year. Meantime, the deputies are working on a Teamsters contract that gave them a 5 percent bump last year, a 2 percent increase this year and will give them a 2 percent increase in 2013 — the only union contract guaranteed to receive a raise next year. The sheriff said those wage increases are there to put his employees on par with other law enforcement agencies in the area.

Although raises may be up for debate for some county employees, merely getting their wages back to the level they were a few years ago could be a scenario for many, who have seen pay cuts in recent years.

In the past three county budgets, the commissioners have leaned heavily on their employees to take voluntarily furloughs. When some employees started to buck the trend last year, declining to participate in the voluntary furloughs, the county commissioners decided to force the matter and use a “temporary layoff” provision in its main contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union to force the closure of the County Administration Building. That resulted in a 5 percent wage cut to line employees in the Auditor’s Office, the Assessor’s Office, the Treasurer’s Office, Planning & Building and some other elements of Public Services. Some of those employees have leaned on a state unemployment program to make up some of their wage losses.

Those offices are all closed this Friday, which happens to be one of the days mandated for the temporary layoffs.

But those employees aren’t alone in the pay cuts.

Some at District Court in Montesano and Aberdeen took a 20 percent pay cut this year to keep their offices running.