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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In our view: A Raise? In 2011?

When a city manager makes morethan the governor, the system is misaligned

The Columbian
Published: December 15, 2011, 4:00pm

Enough is enough. The 3.5 percent salary increase granted Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes by city councilors — who decided in the cozy cocoon of an executive session — is a slap in the face of taxpayers who will pay that increase.

We’re not saying that boosting Holmes’ pay to $167,152 annually (plus benefits) in and of itself suggests the end of the world as we know it. But obviously there is a dysfunctional misalignment of compensation of public employees at the local, state and federal levels.

Vancouver residents feel justifiably outraged when many city workers ride higher and higher on the hog while streets go unrepaired, fire stations are closed and then reopened and vital services are curtailed or eliminated.

What happened Monday in a three-hour meeting of the city councilors is symptomatic of a broken system. It’s time for governments to recognize that they cannot continue doing business independent of the devastating economic conditions that have brought the rest of society to its knees, financially. Granted, staffing levels for the city of Vancouver are down to what they were in 1998. And in Clark County government, about 15 percent of the workforce has been eliminated in the past two years. Still, two different economic worlds exist, one for regular folks in the private sector who are lucky to even have jobs, and another for the many levels of government.

We’re not buying the argument that Holmes deserves the increase. What he actually has earned is the same reward that is cherished in the private sector: continued employment. Such a reward has been denied — often undeservedly — to thousands of taxpayers who pay Holmes’ salary.

The mayor and city councilors can quickly parrot the talking-points defense of their decision. “The council is extremely pleased with (Holmes’) performance, particularly given the circumstances,” Mayor Tim Leavitt said in a Thursday Columbian story. We wonder, though, what “circumstances” the mayor has in mind. Is he talking about the massive budget crunch that has forced layoffs and cuts in city services and programs? Why don’t those same circumstances apply in determining Holmes’ salary?

Remember how the monster is fed. Other management-level city workers recently received 1.5 percent raises, and many could be receiving additional merit-based increases of 3.5 percent. And the cycle rolls on.

Consider also these two realities: First, leaders of the government class apparently remain out of touch with the people they serve. Increasingly, mortgages fall underwater, and unemployment remains at stratospheric levels, yet many areas of the public payroll keep fattening themselves. Second, enabler politicians are reluctant to break the addiction.

There’s one more infuriating factor to consider. When Holmes walks into a negotiation session with union officials, we wonder if they’ll eagerly chirp: We want what you got. Fair is fair.

No wonder the vicious cycle rolls on unabated.

Our beef is not with Holmes, whose official grade was “very good.” It’s with elected officials whose political survival will depend on their recognition that pay and benefits for public workers must become benchmarked to what exists in the private sector. And in these times of severe economic stress, no raises are warranted.

Holmes should reject the raise or return the increase. (His pay just went above the governor’s). This decision feels like business as usual even though we are in the worst recession in seven decades, and especially when the city has already had massive layoffs and curtailment of services provided.