Politics & Government

Tacoma council votes to change pay policy for city employees

The Tacoma City Council unanimously decided Tuesday to move away from a nearly 6-year-old compensation philosophy that aimed to pay city workers more than most of their peers.

Instead, the city will consider adjusting pay scales for positions on a case-by-case basis, taking into account recruitment and retention challenges as well as the condition of the economy and the city’s budget.

The policy also states that in the future the city could offer nonunion employees differing pay levels based on performance — a tool that Tacoma Public Utilities boss Bill Gaines has said he needs to attract qualified employees to the utility.

Tacoma Human Resources director Joy St. Germain said the change was a recommendation from the Fiscal Sustainability Task Force, a group of citizens that met last year to examine the city’s finances with the goal of reducing a projected $26 million biennial budget shortfall.

The group suggested amending the city’s compensation philosophy as one way to get a handle on rising personnel costs.

The city spent years overhauling its pay structure before deciding in 2008 to move to a market-driven system that set the top pay step for Tacoma workers above that of about 70 percent of public and private employees doing similar work. The shift prompted pay raises for city employees totalling millions of dollars.

Last year, the council, citing budget problems, revised its goal downward to the 60th percentile. The new policy removes the percentile goal completely.

How the new compensation philosophy will affect union employees is unclear. They will continue to bargain for wage increases, but those negotiations evidently won’t be guided by a fixed point on a salary survey.

Last year, the state Public Employment Relations Commission ruled that the city engaged in unfair labor practices in negotiations with a union that represents more than two dozen employees of Click, the city-owned cable system. The commission faulted the city for trying to change its target to the 60th percentile in the middle of negotiations. As a result of PERC’s ruling, the city had to go back to the bargaining table.

With the new pay policy, St. Germain said the city’s goal is to continue to “recruit and retain high-quality employees.”

Increases in a pay grade will happen as they have in the past, St. Germain said Tuesday: after City Council approval.