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News / Clark County News

Vancouver city attorneys lead way in pay increases

First review of pay, job classification in 12 years for some leads to wage hikes

By Stephanie Rice
Published: April 19, 2014, 5:00pm
2 Photos
Vancouver City Hall.
Vancouver City Hall. Photo Gallery

In 12 months, Vancouver Assistant City Attorney John Farra’s salary increased by 47 percent.

The reasons his annual salary soared from $61,812 to $91,164 included a cost-of-living increase, merit raise and expanded duties, but the biggest factor was a salary adjustment.

The jump followed what Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said was the first city compensation and job classification review in a dozen years, which led to salary range adjustments for many nonunion jobs.

Joining Farra in receiving among the biggest adjustments were five other assistant city attorneys, whose salaries — including the one-time adjustments, cost-of-living increases and merit raises — increased between 22 and 42 percent from January 2013 to January 2014, according to city records provided to The Columbian in response to a public disclosure request.

Increases for attorneys were the most dramatic among the city departments where salary ranges were adjusted. The raises were long overdue, said City Attorney Ted Gathe. Most employees’ increases were in the low single digits.

The salary adjustments, which took effect July 1, were made at the direction of Holmes.

He said the city lacked a comprehensive system that allowed for effective management and ensured employees doing like work across departments were compensated equally.

Suzi Hagstrom, the city’s director of human resources, added that salary ranges were streamlined.

“We know our No. 1 cost driver is wages and benefits,” said Holmes, city manager since 2010.

Holmes said the city collected compensation data from about 20 cities and six counties in Washington and Oregon, with cities ranging in size from Battle Ground to Portland. Minimum, maximum and market median salaries were calculated for approximately six dozen positions.

The city targeted the median salaries, Holmes said.

As he explained in an email to Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and members of the city council, there were four objectives of the compensation and classification study: assuring the city was offering competitive wages so it can retain and attract talent as workforce turnover accelerates due to economic recovery and forecasted retirements; assuring pay equity within the organization; revising the city’s total compensation approach to “assure affordability;” and simplifying the system to provide “more flexibility and clarity in how positions are classified.”

Holmes didn’t receive a salary increase last year.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and city councilors, whose salaries are set by a volunteer commission, also went without increases.

Study ongoing

In a March 12 email to Leavitt and councilors — written a week after The Columbian submitted its public disclosure request for salary information — Holmes gave an update and said the next group of employees to be reviewed will be the balance of the non-uniformed workforce, including represented positions such as mechanics.

“This will include assuring that market analysis is done on positions with like duties and responsibilities,” Holmes wrote. “The results of that analysis will be implemented within budget capacity, policy and our collective bargaining relationships. As you are aware, Washington state labor relations statutes stipulate that wages and hours of work are ‘mandatory subjects of bargaining.’ We are communicating the updated market information to union leadership as it is available, and expect it to be a topic when negotiating new contracts through 2014.”

Lastly, the city will negotiate with police officers and firefighters, Holmes said.

The Vancouver City Council approved a budget that contained money for the salary increases, but didn’t need to vote specifically on the increases.

Gathe said setting salary ranges and job classifications are within the city manager’s duties and don’t need approval from the council.

The salary study began in 2012. The city paid $91,698 to an outside consulting firm, but ultimately rejected its suggestions, Holmes said.

Holmes said the firm, Fox Lawson & Associates, offered a system he thought was too subjective and supplied salary data the city found to be outdated when it went to verify the numbers.

Bruce Lawson, managing partner of Fox Lawson, said he hadn’t heard the concerns expressed by Holmes.

“I have not heard any of the issues raised by the city manager since we completed our last assignment for the city in October 2013,” the Phoenix-based Lawson wrote in an email. “If the city has changed its mind about the direction it wishes to go with its compensation program, that is certainly their option. We were requested to assist them in developing a broader and more flexible job classification structure and that is what we did. Broader systems are, by definition, less specific and provide for greater flexibility in how compensation is managed. The city has historically managed job classifications very narrowly and market data has been compiled in a different manner than we are seeing organizations do so in today’s rapidly changing environment. In terms of data not matching, we have not seen their numbers so have no way of knowing whether the data was collected using a different effective date or whether the data was adjusted to reflect geographic differentials.”

In Holmes’ email to the city council, he wrote that private sector data was included in the study.

However, it wasn’t, Holmes said during an April 14 interview. Using private sector figures was something the city struggled with, he said, and at some point trying to use private sector data becomes a distraction because many public sector positions don’t have private sector equivalents, including police officers, firefighters and prosecutors.

Gathe, for example, has been the city’s top attorney since 1994. He earns $150,552 annually.

If Gathe were president of a private law firm that offered the scope of criminal and civil legal services as the city attorney’s office, Gathe would be making substantially more money, Holmes said.

Plus, he said, at private law firms attorneys have profit sharing, bonuses and other incentives not available in the public sector.

Holmes said the city may include private sector data in the study of represented non-uniformed employees, if reliable data can be found.

Deputy prosecutors concerned

The increases for city attorneys haven’t gone unnoticed by Clark County deputy prosecuting attorneys. Farra was hired in December 2012 as a full-time city employee and assigned to the jointly operated Vancouver-Clark County Domestic Violence Prosecution Center.

Farra interned at the city’s main attorney office for a year, then interned at the DVPC for seven months while the city was filling vacancies before accepting the full-time job, Gathe said.

Now, his salary rivals that of a Clark County senior deputy prosecutor who has a decade more experience.

Gathe, however, says the increases for his staff were long overdue and points out attorneys have higher earning potential at the county. City attorneys, along with other city employees, went without cost-of-living increases from 2009 to 2011 and non-union employees didn’t receive merit increases in 2010 and 2011.

Gathe has been advocating for the higher pay.

“You can’t go for 12 years without doing an evaluation of salaries and where you sit in the marketplace,” said Gathe.

The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office handles all felony crimes, with the exception of at the Domestic Violence Prosecution Center. Last year, Farra was authorized by the county to prosecute felony cases in addition to misdemeanors.

With his new salary, Farra makes only $528 a year less than Dustin Richardson, a Clark County senior deputy prosecutor with 11 years of experience.

Richardson, the assistant unit coordinator, earns $91,692 a year. The unit coordinator, Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Nugent, earns $96,888. Nugent has worked for the city for eight years, and before the salary adjustment was earning $75,588.

Prior to July 1, the salary range for assistant city attorney II (the classification of attorneys who received the largest increases) was $59,880 to $88,476. It had not been reviewed or adjusted since 2000, Gathe said. The current pay scale ranges from $86,349 to $112,254.

Clark County’s pay scale for deputy prosecutors, deputy prosecuting attorneys II and senior deputy prosecutors, in contrast, goes from $56,784 to $126,432.

Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik, who provided The Columbian with a list of what his employees make, has prosecutors handling misdemeanors who are at or near the bottom of the pay range and has prosecutors in his general felony unit who earn less than city attorneys prosecuting misdemeanors.

Unlike city attorneys, county deputy prosecutors are in a guild.

Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said negotiations aren’t currently underway with the prosecutor’s guild, but during meetings of a labor-management committee the city attorney salaries have been discussed as a concern to the guild.

According to the city salary study information provided to The Columbian, the city collected information from 16 governments, including Clark County, to calculate the new salary range for assistant city attorneys.

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