Clark County's top earners

Clark Public Utilities chief No. 1 on list of public employees

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Public salaries stay relatively flat amid tight budgets

50 saw pay increase of 5 percent or more between 2011, 2012

Scott Bailey, regional labor economist for the Employment Security Department, said salaries for public officials have remained pretty flat as budgets remain tight.

“Some of us had furloughs, so we made less than we did in the past year,” said Bailey, who has been compiling salary data for 3 million nonfederal public and private employees statewide, which he’ll soon release.

Of 706 public employees in The Columbian’s online salary database, 399 people are also in our 2011 and 2010 public salary databases.

Of those 399 workers, 50 received base pay increases of 5 percent or more between 2011 and 2012 and 59 saw increases between 3 and 4.9 percent.

The higher base salaries reflect cost-of-living and step increases or additional responsibilities.

Chief Steve Wrightson said his crew at Hockinson-based Clark County Fire District 3, for example, received a 2.6 percent cost-of-living increase for 2012 and eligible employees received step increases per their contracts.

Wrightson said the 2.6 percent COLA was based on the Portland-area Consumer Price Index from the first half of 2011.

Approximately one-third of the 399 employees received pay increases between 1 and 2.9 percent, while base salaries for about one-quarter of those employees either stayed the same from 2011 to 2012 or were less than 1 percent higher. Another 56 people saw their base salaries decrease, which for more than a dozen people was a decrease of less than 1 percent.

Of 247 people who received an increase from 2011 to 2012, 38 percent hadn’t received one the previous year.

— Stephanie Rice

As chief executive officer of Clark Public Utilities, Wayne Nelson manages the second-largest public utility district in the state. The agency has the distinction of being the leanest utility statewide, with the lowest operations and maintenance cost per customer of any public or private utility and the highest number of customers per employee of any public utility.

Nelson is paid less than the labor market's median base salary for similar positions, but his $230,000 salary plus vehicle allowance was enough to earn his own distinction: The highest-compensated public employee in Clark County in 2012, according to The Columbian's annual salary survey of 38 public agencies and municipalities.

While Nelson has received raises for his job performance, two former police chiefs cracked the Top 10 for getting paid to stop doing their jobs.

Cliff Cook, who earned $138,420 in 2011, was paid $208,581 for eight months of work in 2012, seventh on The Columbian's list. Cook resigned as Vancouver's top cop following a meeting with City Manager Eric Holmes. The decision that the department needed fresh leadership was described as mutual.

Cook's total compensation for 2012 included base pay, six months of severance pay and unused leave payouts. He's now police chief in Bellingham.

In La Center, Tim Hopkin, 65, was paid $150,000 to retire following a critical review by an outside consultant, who noted officers said Hopkin was never around and didn't track out-of-control spending on overtime.

Hopkin received a total of $219,308, making him the second highest-compensated public employee in the county last year.

Hopkin, a candidate for La Center City Council, said last week he has no comment, except that he has moved on and accepted a job outside of law enforcement.

WSU Vancouver chancellor earns more

The Columbian files requests under the Washington Public Records Act for the base salary and total compensation, which includes extras such as overtime pay and car allowances, for every agency's 20 highest-paid employees in the calendar year, or for all employees for agencies with fewer than 20 employees.

That qualifier -- what was earned in the calendar year -- vaulted Nelson to the No. 1 spot, up from No. 2 last year, because new Washington State University Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer didn't start work until midyear.

Netzhammer, who took over following the retirement and death of Hal Dengerink, earns $300,000 annually, easily making him the highest-paid public employee in the county. At Clark Public Utilities, Nelson earned a base salary of $230,000 last year. Coupled with his monthly car allowance, his compensation totaled $234,654.

His counterparts in privately owned utilities earn in excess of $1 million in total compensation. That's a different world, Nelson said, and it's one centered on pleasing shareholders. Taxpayer-owned utilities focus on the customer, Nelson said.

James Piro of Portland General Electric, for example, earned $2.1 million in 2012, according to a recent Seattle Times compilation of reported CEO pay at publicly traded companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest. Gregg Kantor of Northwest Natural Gas earned $1.7 million.

Nelson, who did not receive a pay increase for 2013, makes a little more than six times as much as an entry-level Clark Public Utilities customer service representative. That job requires a high school diploma or equivalent and a minimum of three years' experience.

Nelson has a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Washington and a law degree from Lewis & Clark College. He started at Clark Public Utilities in 1989 as legal counsel. He was named CEO a decade later, and the three elected utility commissioners have boosted his salary in recent years following a three-year freeze. Since 2011 his salary has increased approximately 14 percent to $230,000, but still falls below the median base salary of $249,000 for similar positions, as determined in a study by Seattle firm Milliman.

The utility has 358 full-time employees and provides electricity to more than 185,000 residential and business customers in Clark County. It also has 31,340 residential water customers in unincorporated areas.

Four other Clark Public Utilities employees ranked among the top 20 highest-compensated public employees. Director of Finance Rich Dyer was No. 15, with $185,364 in earnings, followed by Director of Engineering Cal Morris, Director of Operations Andy Huck and Director of Energy Resources Patrick McGary, who all earned approximately $182,000 and ranked 17-19.

Rest of Top 10

Two WSUV professors made the Top 10. The base pay of $213,096 for psychology professor Karen Schmaling (No. 3) was boosted by a one-time, all-university payment, which was also received by Professor Robert Bates. Bates, director for Research and Graduate Education, earned extra money as he took on additional responsibilities, landing him at No. 6 with a total of $209,060.

Fifth on the list was Vancouver Fire Department Battalion Chief Robert Walker, 58, who retired with a total compensation of $210,096. That included base pay of $96,910, overtime and retirement buybacks.

Alastair Smith, senior director of marketing and operations at the Port of Vancouver, was No. 8 because his base salary of $149,158 was boosted 36 percent thanks to the port's deferred compensation program for executives.

The highest-paid employee in Clark County government, Medical Examiner Dr. Dennis Wickham, was No. 9. He earned $202,318, which included a $4,800 vehicle allowance. As usual, the list of 20 highest-paid county government employees was dominated by judges. Superior Court judges earn $148,832, approximately $8,000 more than District Court judges. Judicial salaries are set by the Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials.

Prosecutor Tony Golik's total compensation was $151,695; no other elected county officials made the list.

Superintendents of Clark County's largest school districts rounded out The Columbian's Top 10. Steven Webb of Vancouver Public Schools was No. 4 and Evergreen Public Schools' John Deeder was No. 10.

Webb's $191,262 salary plus an annuity brought his total compensation to $213,262, while Deeder's $173,772 salary plus an annuity brought his total to $196,362.


Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.