The number of Pierce County employees earning six-figure salaries rose dramatically last year even as the county struggled to balance its budget.
County records show 371 employees – 1 out of every 8 full-time workers – earned at least $100,000 in 2009. That’s a 70 percent increase over 2008, a News Tribune analysis of county pay records shows.
County officials cited several reasons for the growth in six-figure salaries. Overtime at the short-staffed county jail is a factor. An extra paycheck for all employees also boosted pay last year.
But cost-of-living pay raises for county employees – including a 5.2 percent raise last year – have drawn the most attention from elected officials. Some want to rein in those raises when union contracts are renegotiated next year.
“We need to let revenue catch up with expenditures,” said County Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom.
The News Tribune analyzed salary data for nearly 3,700 county employees – everyone from County Executive Pat McCarthy to part-timers and extra hires who worked only a few hours last year.
The database shows each employee’s total gross pay as of the final pay period of 2009. Gross pay includes regular pay, overtime and other pay employees received. It doesn’t factor in benefits.
The database is incomplete. It does not show the earnings of employees who worked in 2009 but left before the final pay period of the year.
The newspaper also reviewed comparable pay data for 2007 and 2008.
An analysis of the data shows:
371 employees – or more than 12 percent of full-time, regular employees – earned at least $100,000 last year. That’s up from 218 in 2008 and 187 in 2007.
By comparison, a government of similar size and scope, the City of Tacoma, also has hundreds of employees making six figures. A News Tribune analysis of payroll data from the city found 419 full-time general government employees – or about 18 percent – making $100,000 or more in total pay for 2009. The city number excludes Tacoma Public Utilities and library employees, but does include many well-compensated Fire Department employees (the county doesn’t staff a fire department).
Median pay for regular full-time Pierce County employees last year was $69,398.
The analysis shows three departments – the Sheriff’s Department, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and Information Technology – accounted for about-two thirds of employees earning six-figure pay. In the Sheriff’s Department 112 employees earned at least $100,000 last year, followed by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (74) and IT (55).
The highest-paid county employee last year: Dr. Miguel Balderrama, medical director at the county jail, who earned $186,455.
Several factors have contributed to the growth in six-figure salaries in county government.
Overtime in the Sheriff’s Department is a big factor. Most of the department’s top earners received at least $10,000 in overtime. A few earned more than $50,000 for working extra hours.
Managing overtime has been especially challenging at the jail. For years, department officials have said the jail is short-staffed. That means overtime shifts for many corrections officers and other employees.
Undersheriff Eileen Bisson said the department tries to balance the costs of paying overtime to existing employees against the cost of hiring new employees – and paying for the health insurance and other benefits they earn.
“You can hit that nexus where you’ve got too many vacancies and you’re spending way too much on overtime, or you have too few vacancies and you’re spending a lot on employee costs” such as benefits, she said.
“We’ve had way too much overtime,” Bisson added.
Other factors also have contributed to growing salaries.
County officials say competition from the private sector is a factor in the salaries paid to county prosecutors and information technology workers.
Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist said he recently lost a promising entry-level attorney to private practice. And it wasn’t just the money. With budget cuts reducing the number of attorneys in the office, the employee saw little opportunity for promotion, Lindquist said.
“The only reason we can be competitive with our salaries is this is a great job, a great place to work and a great town to live in,” he said.
Another contributing factor: Because of a quirk in the calendar, county employees – who get paid every two weeks – received 27 paychecks in 2009, instead of 26. That extra paycheck boosted 50 employees into six-figure territory; 321 would have earned at least $100,000 even without the extra paycheck.
Cost-of-living raises also have been a factor.
The county’s union contracts call for cost-of-living adjustments of 90 percent of inflation, as measured by the regional Consumer Price Index.
Last year’s 5.2 percent raise was the result of skyrocketing consumer costs, including a spike in fuel prices, that peaked in summer 2008 – just when the inflation rate for county raises was determined.
Soon after that consumer prices fell because of the economic recession. But workers still got the 5.2 percent raise.
Though inflation has been next to nothing, county workers got a 2.5 percent raise this year – the minimum allowed under union contracts. They’ll get at least 2.5 percent again next year.
Most of those contracts were negotiated by former County Executive John Ladenburg and approved by the council more than a year ago.
Council members have periodically questioned the raises, given the low rate of inflation. Muri said the council couldn’t have foreseen a drop in the cost of living when it approved the union contracts.
“Nobody ever thought we’d have inflation significantly under 2.5 percent,” he said.
From 2006 through 2008, regional inflation far exceeded 2.5 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But from 2002 through 2005, the inflation rate used to calculate county raises was below 2.5 percent.
Some council members asked about reopening the existing contracts. But McCarthy said renegotiating 19 union contracts would be more trouble than it was worth. The county might have to renegotiate a range of issues, not just pay.
“You’d have to go in and open every contract,” she said. “What would you gain from the work of negotiating some sort of endeavor like that?”
About 55 percent of county employees are represented by a union. The council has elected to give nonunion employees the same raises as union workers, although it’s not required to.
Muri said the council wants to be fair to all employees. But he said the decision to grant nonunion workers the same raises also is a practical one.
“If we don’t give it to the nonunion (employees), they unionize,” he said. “We’ve got to treat everybody equally.”
Under ordinances approved by the council, elected officials automatically get a 3 percent raise each year.
According to the county’s budget office, general fund spending on employee pay and benefits rose more than 2 percent from 2008 to 2009. But general fund revenue fell nearly 1 percent during the same period as the economic recession took its toll. That’s made it hard to balance the county budget.
Despite the raises, employees have felt the sting of budget cuts. For example, the planning department has lost 43 positions in the last year, including 17 to layoffs. Three-quarters of the department’s staff took nine furlough days last year. Many will take 12 furlough days this year – effectively a 4.6 percent pay cut.
Other departments have seen staff cuts as well. And many employees are paying a share of their health insurance premiums for the first time.
The tough times might not be over.
Muri thinks county employees shouldn’t expect much of a raise when many of the union contracts expire at the end of 2011.
“I’m hoping the executive says no increase for 2012,” Muri said.
Under the county charter, the executive has the authority to negotiate contracts on the county’s behalf. The council approves them.
“When our contracts are up, we will revisit how we do (cost-of-living adjustments) in this county,” McCarthy said.
To streamline negotiations, the executive also is trying to realign union contracts so they all come up for renewal at once.
Despite concerns about the raises, Muri said he thinks most employees are fairly compensated.
“The marketplace determines how much people are paid,” he said.
McCarthy said the growth of six-figure salaries is a sign the county has many long-term employees. According to the pay database, 54 percent of regular employees had worked for the county for at last 10 years.
“It means we retain employees,” she said. “We have the advantage of a lot of experience. Those veterans provide a level of knowledge and experience that are valuable to the system.”
David Wickert: 253-274-7341