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Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Sept. 26, 2023

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Jayne: Keeping up with Joneses costly

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It’s a beauty contest of sorts, with local governments combing their hair and taking a close look in the mirror and dressing to the nines.

In this regard, it is no different from private business. You want to make yourself attractive to potential employees, and one way to do that is to increase salaries. But there is a difference from the private sector — and not only because you and I are paying for it.

We’ll get to that in a minute. First, the details.

A couple months ago, the Camas City Council voted to increase the salary for its city administrator by about 4 percent, up to a maximum of $205,000 a year. The bump was designed, according to the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, to “help make the position more attractive to more qualified candidates.”

Fair enough. You get what you pay for when hiring, and Camas recently filled the position with Doug Quinn, a former city director and member of the local school board. That ended an 18-month search for somebody to do the job.

Undoubtedly, a salary range up to $205,000 a year is attractive to most people. Equally certain, few people are qualified to be a city manager.

But Camas is just one example of the beauty contest that is taking place throughout Clark County.

After staring at the mirror and deciding a makeover was in order, the Clark County Council last month voted to give County Manager Kathleen Otto a raise of 20 percent over three years. A little more than a week ago, Otto’s salary was $180,000; now it’s $198,000, and by 2025 it will be $218,925.

Not wanting to be the ugly ducklings of the area, the Vancouver City Council then approved an 8.25 percent raise for City Manager Eric Holmes, increasing his base salary from $293,091 to $317,271.

Beautiful! And to add a little sparkle, they backdated the pay increase to June 1.

Now, not every entity can be the Gal Gadot of local government; we do the best we can with what we have. But the Washougal City Council managed to approve mild pay increases for City Manager David Scott over the next three years, bringing his salary to $197,423 by 2025.

Make no mistake. Being a city or county manager is a difficult and important job. In local governments, councils decide on policy and the manager carries it out, overseeing the staffs of multiple departments and ensuring everything runs smoothly. And cities are in competition with other governments and private businesses to hire and retain the best people.

Despite frequent public assertions that government workers are overpaid, the Federal Salary Council found in 2020 that federal employees are paid 23 percent less than those in similar private-sector positions. On top of that, being a manager for the government doesn’t include the fancy stock options or other perks that can come with private-sector jobs.

But the crux of the issue was evident when the Clark County Council approved a pay hike for Otto.

As Council Chair Karen Bowerman said: “There’s no doubt there are some communities where it is considerably higher for the county manager, but our county, at this time, we felt that this was an appropriate level for us to come close to meeting the center of those comps.”

The Columbian reported that county Human Resources Director William Winfield had been tasked with comparing Otto’s salary to county manager pay in similar-sized counties. The result was a 20 percent raise over three years.

That might or might not be equitable. But you can bet that officials in Washington’s Spokane County and Oregon’s Clackamas County will look at those numbers and declare that their executives are underpaid compared with similar counties. And pay increases there will again raise the baseline for Clark County executives.

Certainly, attracting good people is essential to well-functioning government. So is keeping the institutional knowledge that comes with experienced employees.

But a circuitous cycle of trying to keep up with the Joneses of other governments can eventually turn ugly for the people who are paying the bills.