County pay scales look out of whack

Everyone who works deserves to be paid fairly for their labor. But it’s always fair to debate the amount. A case in point was the recent pay recommendation for Thurston County commissioners and other county elected officials in 2018.

At first glance, something looks amiss — if not out of whack. There is a great discrepancy between some county officials’ pay and their counterparts at the state level, especially for county prosecutor.

This is no knock on Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim, a Democrat who has done a good enough job that he didn’t draw a single opponent in his last election race. But under the pay scheme recommended by the county panel, Tunheim is scheduled to get a 2 percent raise to $14,099 a month or $169,188 for the year. By contrast, the state Attorney General Bob Ferguson earns $160,989 after his latest raise, yet Ferguson has an agency almost 15 times larger than Tunheim’s.

Gov. Jay Inslee got a 1 percent raise in September that raised his pay to $173,617.

Locally, county Superior Court judges earn exactly one dollar a year less than what Tunheim is scheduled to receive; county District Court judges earn less, $161,092.

Prosecutor and AG pay rates are set by different bodies, which, along with certain state laws, account for the discrepancy. The Washington Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials sets pay for state elected executives, legislators and state court judges at all levels.

That state commission meets every two years and draws on pay data for comparable positions around the country and in-state to reach its recommendations. By law, its recommendations are supposed to ensure that pay is competitive with counterparts, and judicial pay is tied or “benchmarked” to federal judicial pay.

By contrast, county pay scales are set by a local panel made up of voters from each of the three county commissioner districts.

As it turns out, the state Legislature passed a bill sought by the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys a decade ago that ties prosecutor pay to superior court judges’ pay.

The idea, according to WAPA executive director Tom McBride and to Tunheim, was to equalize pay across the counties and take into account the seriousness of decisions made by the local prosecutors who handle civil law and serious criminal charges such as murder.

Pay at the time varied considerably county-to-county. McBride also said county offices are more likely to be career positions than AG, which typically is held for up to two or three terms.

McBride has a point there. State attorney general has been a launching pad for candidates for governor and U.S. Senate — so its value for upwardly mobile politicians goes well beyond a pay check.

And Teri Wright of the state salary commission says AG Ferguson’s pay is actually fourth highest among attorneys general in the country. She said pay for local politicians trends higher than state level counterparts.

Thurston County Commission chairman Bud Blake says he and fellow commissioners intend to accept the recommendations of the citizen panel that analyzed pay. “Whatever the citizen board adopted we are going to adopt. It is just a COLA,’’ he said this week, expecting a vote any day.

Though it is too late to stop the show this time, it does seem obvious that the county pay committee ought to take a broader look at pay equity — up and down government — the next time it is impaneled. Compensation for county commissioners and the sheriff also deserve a broad look.

The sheriff is to earn $136,596 next year, up 4 percent from a year ago when he’d received a 5 percent raise. Thurston County commissioners are scheduled to earn $9,819 a month, or $117,828 per year, in 2018. That is the same rate scheduled for the county assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner and treasurer, and it represents a 2 percent raise after a 3.5 percent raise the previous year.

Some larger counties pay commissioners or councilors less than Thurston’s are paid — in Pierce County it is $9,412 a month, in Spokane County, $8,164, and in Clark County, $5,459. Yet smaller Kitsap County pays its commissioners $10,506 monthly; larger Snohomish County pays $11,811, according to data provided to the Thurston pay panel.

Citizen pay commissions are supposed to foster fairer pay schedules. Here it looks like the results are a bit scatter shot.

We have the one hand of local government seeming to not know what the other hand of state government is doing. Are the results fair?