Tacoma council rejects $4.7 million in raises for nearly 400 workers

But 17 general government workers will get pay raises

Staff writerMay 7, 2013 

Citing fairness issues, Tacoma’s City Council unanimously rejected a measure Tuesday that would have given nearly 400 nonunion Tacoma Public Utilities workers $4.7 million in market-based pay raises over the current two-year budget cycle.

“I don’t feel comfortable in giving (market-driven) raises for just some employees and not for others,” Councilman Ryan Mello said.

In a separate move, the council approved boosting pay for 17 general government workers for a different reason: Most are supervisors who in some cases are earning less than employees they supervise.

“In these cases, we have assistant chiefs in the police and fire departments that are making more than the chiefs,” Mello said. “In a chain of command structure, that needs to be changed.”

In all, the approved pay adjustments for general government employees – set to kick in May 20 – will amount to $363,073 in 2013-14, City Manager T.C. Broadnax said.

The salary adjustments included 13 percent raises to Police Chief Don Ramsdell and Fire Chief Duggan, both of whom are now paid less than some top assistants or deputies in their respective departments.

Both chiefs – who have topped out the pay ceilings for their positions – will see their annual salaries rise by about $20,000 to nearly $195,000.

Approval of the raises came after the seven council members attending Tuesday’s meeting unanimously agreed to back Mello’s idea to pull apart what had been one measure combining proposed raises for both TPU and general government workers.

“It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow,” Councilwoman Lauren Walker said of the proposed TPU raises. “Therefore I want to vote on them separately.”

The proposed TPU boosts sought to reset pay scales for about 389 nonunion utilities employees in 94 job classes at the 60th percentile of market – the city’s new employee pay target. They ranged from 0.7 percent in one case, to as high as 22 percent in another. Most job classes were targeted for hikes from 5-10 percent, but at least 18 classifications would have garnered raises of more than 10 percent.

Under the measure, some of TPU’s highest paid employees also stood to get some of the biggest raises. Utilities Director Bill Gaines – already the highest paid city employee – would have had his salary jump by 18 percent, from $310,000 to $366,000 per year.

Earlier this week, Gaines told The News Tribune if the council approved the measure, he planned to initially take only about half of his raise – what he called a “fairer” pay level.

But he also contended the proposed pay rate adjustments were long overdue. While competing utilities typically reset pay annually, Gaines noted TPU’s nonunion workers hadn’t received a pay raise in more than four years. In some cases, departing TPU employees have cited pay as a factor, he added.

“The main reason (for the raises) is for recruitment and retention of people,” Gaines said.

But Mello said he hasn’t been convinced by that explanation, saying TPU officials have never given him proof workers are leaving over pay. Mello also questioned the size and timing of the proposed raises, noting hundreds of general government utilities workers who do similar work aren’t due for raises.

“While I would love to give everyone pay raises,” Mello said, “the financial reality is we cannot.”

All seven council members in attendance Tuesday – Mello, Walker, David Boe, Marty Campbell, Anders Ibsen, Mayor Marilyn Strickland and Robert Thoms – voted against the TPU raises. Council members Joe Lonergan and Victoria Woodards were absent.

The council’s action confounded TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason, who said after Tuesday’s vote the proposed pay adjustments were solidly based on the council’s newly adopted “compensation philosophy.”

“We aligned these adjustments to that (philosophy), but now they’re saying that’s not what they want,” Gleason said. “We need to understand better what they’re after.”

Gleason added that in March, the council gave similar “market-based” pay raises to unionized workers “pretty much without fanfare or comment.”

Aside from the fire and police chief positions, the other general government positions approved for raises Tuesday included financial supervisor (5.8 percent), information technology supervisor (8 percent), real estate officer (7.6 percent) and senior real estate officer (7.6 percent).

One other job class – the assistant-to-the-city manager – was approved to receive a 42 percent hike, bringing its pay ceiling to $124,000.

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