Having efficient, knowledgeable, hardworking people in government is essential to a thriving community. At the county level, those workers maintain roads, process permit applications, ensure fair elections and perform thousands of other tasks in the public eye and behind the scenes.
For critics who believe the private sector is inherently more efficient than government, we will simply point to the disaster that is Texas’ privately owned electrical grid. And then we will give thanks that our public utility turns on the lights when we flip the switch.
That being said, a salary increase for many Clark County employees brings up several issues related to the public sector. The county council has approved raises that will start as soon as Aug. 1. The pay adjustments for nonunion employees will cost the county $850,000 annually. Salaries for union workers are negotiated through collective bargaining.
All of this is the result of a yearlong review led by a Wisconsin-based consulting firm. The study evaluated 288 county positions, comparing salaries across similar government positions in Battle Ground, Camas, Vancouver, Portland, Washougal and other nearby counties and jurisdictions. It found that within Clark County government, some positions were being paid less than the market rate.
“Having pay that is not competitive in the marketplace negatively impacts our recruitment efforts and shrinks our application pool, resulting in fewer and less- qualified candidates,” Clark County Treasurer Alishia Topper told the council last week. “They also result in a high employee turnover, which costs us more money in recruitment and training time.”
As anybody who runs a business knows, employee turnover is burdensome; recruiting and training workers is costly, as is the loss of institutional knowledge when an experienced employee leaves. Taxpayers have a vested interest in reducing turnover in county offices.
But there are inherent problems with compensation comparisons across governments. When Clark County raises salaries, the market rate for those salaries is increased. Then, say, Spokane County officials might find their workers are underpaid and deserve raises. So when Clark County conducts another survey … it becomes a circular argument.
Despite that drawback, the public is well-served by having Clark County officials partake in the comparison and adjust salaries accordingly. As Councilor Sue Marshall said: “As a major employer, it’s important for us to keep up to date, to be competitive so that we’re able to attract and retain the very best employees.”
On average, public-sector employees earn less than those in similar private-sector jobs. At the federal level, the Federal Salary Council reported in recent years that the gap is more than 20 percent; various studies have identified similar gaps when comparing state and local governments with the private sector. However, public employees, who are more likely to be represented by a union, typically receive more generous benefits than private-sector employees.
But that is a discussion for another time. For now, the issue is how the county can effectively compete with other governments.
County Manager Kathleen Otto said the salary adjustments fit within the current county budget and are fiscally sustainable for at least six years. Because of that and the benefits of employee retention, the salary increases appear to be a responsible approach to maintaining an efficient and responsive government.