In Our View: Bad Timing for Raise

Clark Public Utilities general manager receives 11 percent salary increase

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With just the slightest application of logical thought, every attempt to explain an 11 percent salary increase for Clark Public Utilities General Manager Wayne Nelson falls far short of believable. Nelson should reject the raise, despite any feeble explanations such as:

Nelson hasn’t received a raise since 2008. So what? Lots of folks haven’t gotten a raise since 2008, and not many of them are getting an 11 percent boost this year.

Since 2008, Nelson has insisted on his pay being frozen in recognition of a tough economy and the community’s struggle with it. That explanation appeared in a Wednesday Columbian story. The story also reveals why Nelson insisted on making such a sacrifice: Waiting for a raise really isn’t so difficult when the raise turns out to be 11 percent, and especially when the raise is retroactive to Jan. 1, and even more especially when you get to convert 100 hours of accrued sick leave into annual leave.

The decision was unanimous by the elected three-member Board of Commissioners. OK, but did they forget they work for the public, which is burdened with the worst economic crisis in seven decades?

Nelson has an important job. He’s in charge of a $338.2 million budget for a public utility that provides electricity to more than 183,000 residential and business customers, plus water service to 30,000 houses and businesses. Yes, but that’s why he’s paid $202,234 per year, plus a $400-per-month car allowance, plus numerous other benefits.

Top-level leadership is expensive these days. We know it is, but let’s make a few valid comparisons. Even before the raise, Nelson was making about $41,000 a year more than the Vancouver city manager, about $32,000 a year more than the Port of Vancouver executive director, and about $3,000 more than the governor.

Replacing such a high-performing utilities manager would be difficult. Really? Let’s assume this statement is true. And if it is, it speaks poorly to the strategic planning at Clark Public Utilities. Large organizations make sure a leader-in-waiting is being groomed for a smooth promotion into the top job. This hard-to-replace excuse is heard often in discussions about highly paid school superintendents. But, more and more, we see school boards formulating successor-in-waiting training programs, which are deployed quickly for seamless transitions.

Clark Public Utilities consistently receives high marks for customer service, and has a four-year run as the top-ranked electricity provider in the Western United States. Yes, and with that should come a high salary and lavish acclaim provided by the press and the public. Nelson already receives both.

No one expects huge financial impacts when politicians or other public figures turn down raises during tough economic times. But we’re not talking about difference-making, budget-balancing sacrifices by these individuals. We’re talking about symbolic gestures, noble acts that transmit this message: “Whether I need more money or have earned it is irrelevant. I already receive a lot, and at this particular time accepting more would insult and understandably anger many people. I serve them, not the other way around.”

Utilities, health care companies, oil companies and governments somehow can manage to keep raising our costs to make life easy on their workers. This is yet another example of some people simply playing with funny money. It’s as if some of them aren’t connected to reality.