Top county managers given 10% raises despite tight budget

EVERETT — Top-level Snohomish County managers received 10 percent raises during the past year, even as the administration that granted the increases is asking other departments to prepare for cuts.

The county faces an uncertain financial future next year as it copes with costs from the Oso mudslide, pressing needs to bulk up jail staffing and a recent downgrade of its bond rating.

The raises apply to about a dozen people under the authority of County Executive John Lovick and total about $150,000.

County Councilman Ken Klein said the pay hikes send a “terrible message” at a time when the council is urging all county employees to be frugal.

“How can we tell our unions that you’re getting 2 percent raises when upper management is getting 10 percent?” Klein said. “It puts the county council in a horrible position.”

The pay increases were enacted through a reclassification process that occurs regularly for management and other non-union employees throughout county government, not just in the executive’s office. Unlike the annual budget, such raises don’t go through the County Council for approval.

Lovick’s administration said it has adjusted 10 salaries since the start of the year, the bulk of those after the March 22 slide.

The executive’s office realized that county government’s pay scales lagged what the market pays for similar positions. That posed a problem as it tried to hire two new executive directors, the managers who oversee people in charge of crucial county functions such as Paine Field, the parks system, the planning department and public works.

“When I went into the market to recruit executive directors, I discovered that we were lagging the market,” county human resources director Bridget Clawson said.

Clawson said she recommended also raising Deputy Executive Mark Ericks’ salary, so he wouldn’t earn less than directors below him. As a result, he now is paid $189,412.

Higher salaries are needed to recruit and retain good employees, Ericks said.

“The is the system we have. We have non-(union)-represented people,” he said. “There’s nothing nefarious about this whatsoever.”

Gov. Jay Inslee, whose pay is set by a citizens commission, draws $166,891 per year in salary.

In addition to Ericks, the adjustments brought two other Snohomish County executive’s office manager salaries above the governor’s. Newly hired executive director Lenda Crawford is paid $167,660 and executive director Gary Haakenson’s salary is $171,853 per year, but he doesn’t take home full pay because he’s decided to work three days a week and is paid accordingly, Ericks said.

A county citizens commission sets the salaries for the executive, council members and other elected leaders every other year. Convened last month, they’re working now to determine salaries for 2015 and 2016.

Lovick’s 2014 salary is nearly $152,000, while most council members earn about $106,000.

The pay-raise kerfuffle spilled over last week after the executive’s office sent a message to all county departments telling managers to explore ways to cut 6 percent from next year’s budget. The letter called it a “reduction exercise.”

The executive’s office on Wednesday sent a follow-up letter saying that “you are not being asked to cut 6 percent from your budget at this time.” The clarification came after a story about the pay raises aired on KING-TV.

In the interim between the letters, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe and his staff had racked their brains to figure out how to cope with such a cut. In past years, they’d already made painful decisions to stop prosecuting certain misdemeanor cases to avoid neglecting crimes such as drunken driving, domestic violence and felonies. Roe wondered whether the extra belt-tightening would leave his deputy prosecutors unable to pursue any misdemeanors at all.

“When I’m told to get ready for a 6 percent cut, you’ll have to forgive me for interpreting that as ‘Get ready for a 6 percent cut,’” Roe said.

Roe called the timing bad.

“It may very well be that every single of these … people were independently deserving of a 10 percent raise,” he said “It doesn’t change how it feels for those of us who are being asked to prepare for 6 percent cuts. I would’ve at least liked a heads-up.

“I don’t think it changes how it looks to the public, either,” Roe added.

The sheriff’s office and the medical examiner’s office were rebuffed by the County Council last week in seeking to add staff to help personnel who were exhausted by the response to the March 22 Oso mudslide.

“We’re asking people to be prudent, and that’s why this reclassification is very awkward,” Council Chairman Dave Somers said Wednesday.

Somers worries about the county’s financial state but he doubts it’ll come to chopping 6 percent.

“I think they’re doing that for planning reasons,” he said. “I have no indication at this point that that is going to be necessary.”

The costs of responding to the Oso mudslide haven’t come into focus. Somers has heard a rough estimate of $16 million, though it’s bound to change. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is likely to cover 75 percent of the cost, and the state another 12.5 percent, but the money could take months to reach the county. It’s not a given that every cent will materialize, and under the best scenario, the county still would have to pick up an estimated $2 million tab.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Ty Trenary has asked the council for additional staff at the jail, most of them registered nurses. The help is needed to address issues identified in recent years after a series of inmate deaths and two federal reviews of the county lockup.

Even as expenses mount, the county is likely to pay more to borrow money. Moody’s Investors Service in May downgraded the county’s bond rating to Aa2 from Aa1. Moody’s also lowered the county’s limited tax general obligation rating to Aa3 from Aa2.

The budget controversy comes amid Lovick’s first test at the polls as executive.

Klein, who’s been the most vocal about the pay issues, is the lone Republican holding a county-level partisan office.

The former county sheriff, Lovick was appointed by county Democrats a year ago to replace Aaron Reardon, the former executive, who resigned after a series of scandals.

Lovick is running in a special election this year to fill the final year remaining on what would have been Reardon’s term. Competing against Lovick are Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick, a Republican, and James Robert Deal, an attorney and anti-fluoride activist from Lynnwood who is running as a Democrat.

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