Symbolic efforts have their place; such a move can at least acknowledge a problem and continue the discussion toward a solution.
Not, however, when they might create more problems than they might solve, which is why the Snohomish County Council didn’t move forward with a proposal to freeze hiring of county employees last week. Council Member Brian Sullivan withdrew his proposal first made in August, citing what he sees as an improved budget picture for the county and the fact a freeze wouldn’t have saved the county much money with only three months remaining in the year. It also would have created other problems, said some county officials, including Auditor Carolyn Weikel, who will need to hire temporary employees during November’s general election.
But another issue offers a second chance for a mostly symbolic gesture that might save the county a little money and gain it some public trust.
A county financial analyst filed a complaint this spring, pointing out what he saw as a problem in how the county determines the monthly vehicle reimbursement for several county officials. Eight of 11 county officials, including all five county council members, who use their personal vehicle for county business, receive a monthly stipend of $596.32. The analyst, a county employee, earlier attempted in 2013 to recalculate the formula for the rate and suggested the county pay only $317 monthly, then later $401.97 a month, according to last week’s story by Herald Writer Noah Haglund. The employee’s attempts to adjust the formula were rebuffed and the rate was set at $569.32.
Following the employee’s complaint, the county hired an investigator — for $10,000 — to look at the matter. The investigator’s report attributed the difference to a matter of opinion in how to interpret the county’s code regarding how the reimbursement rate is figured.
The rate Snohomish County uses may not be out of line. Pierce County officials, Haglund’s story notes, receive a monthly reimbursement of $685.
Even the lowest reimbursement rate, $317 monthly, wasn’t going to make a great difference in the county budget. The difference between the formulas would have amounted to $24,192 in annual savings. That’s not much next to the $10,000 it spent to investigate the matter.
But that reimbursement, which is intended to cover gas, maintenance, repairs, insurance and depreciation, needs to be recognized for what it is: It’s a perk. It’s a perk that’s meant as part of the compensation package for 11 county officials. The reimbursement is not claimed by Executive John Lovick, Clerk Sonya Kraski or Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe.
This isn’t to suggest that county officials not be compensated for the use of their personal vehicles. As part of their responsibilities they do use their own cars for county business.
King County reimburses its county council members on a mileage basis, using the federal rate for business deductions set by the Internal Revenue Service of 57.5 cents per mile, a deduction that is intended to recognize the same costs of using a personal vehicle as noted above. Snohomish County employees also are reimbursed using a per-mile rate. Still, at the federal mileage rate, a county official would have to drive about 990 miles a month on county business to come close to that $569 monthly stipend.
The county code would have to be changed to allow for a switch to a per-mile reimbursement. And again this isn’t going to solve much of a budget gap. But the County Council should consider whether the perk of a monthly vehicle reimbursement is necessary to attract and retain public officials, elected or hired, and whether changing it, a mostly symbolic effort, would be worth a small gain in the public trust.
Correction: In an earlier version of this editorial an incorrect figure was cited for the current monthly vehicle stipend. The figure of $569.32 is correct. This also changes two other figures cited in the editorial: The number of miles a county official would have to drive on county business using the federal mileage rate would be about 990 miles to equal the $569 stipend. The annual difference between the two formulas amounts to $24,192.