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Rich benefits help drive county’s six-figure payroll

Post by Kim Bradford on April 25, 2010 at 7:06 pm with No Comments »
April 25, 2010 7:06 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

Pierce County officials boast that county employees tend to stick around for the long haul. After The News Tribune’s Sunday story about county pay, it’s easy to see why.

Reporter David Wickert revealed that Pierce County has seen a fat increase in the ranks of workers making six figures or more. County records show that 371 employees earned at least $100,000 last year, a 70 percent increase over 2008.

That growth was perpetuated by several factors, among them a quirk in the calendar that gave employees 27 paydays in 2009 rather than the usual 26.

Employee paychecks also were significantly larger in many cases due to a generous 5.2 percent cost-of-living raise in 2009. (New county employees were in line for an additional 5 percent longevity bonus.)

Some employees, such as those in the planning department, didn’t end up much ahead after having to forfeit pay to furloughs. But Pierce County employees, as a whole, were still very well compensated. The median salary for a full-time employee was nearly $70,000, a good ten-grand above what the median Pierce County household makes.

County officials say that competition from the private sector drives much of their payroll expenses. Indeed, the list of six-figure employees includes plenty of positions requiring advanced degrees or training.

The size of the list – which represents about 12 percent of the county workforce – reflects what’s been happening nationwide as public sector workers have weathered the recession in better stead than their private sector counterparts.

The private-public gap is most prominent in employee benefits. Pierce County offers one of the most munificent benefits packages around, and it is partly to blame for the growth in the county’s top earners.

For every dollar the county spends on salaries, it spends another 37 cents on health care, retirement and other employee perks. Until this year, all county workers enjoyed the rare privilege of paying nothing toward the cost of their own health insurance. About 1,300 union employees still don’t.

Most county employees who do contribute to their health care plans pay $50 a month for individual medical, dental and vision coverage. That’s 5 to 10 percent of the cost, depending on the plan they pick. County employees’ meager contribution is the envy of some fellow government workers, not to mention private sector employees who typically pick up 25 percent of their health benefit costs.

Such costly benefits discourage the hiring of new employees where they are needed. Nearly a third of the county’s $100,000-plus employees work where jail supervisors are forced to police a violent inmate population on overtime, a recipe for problems.

County Councilman Dick Muri suggests that the county needs to hold back raises a year to let county revenue catch up with expenditures. The county needs a bigger reset than that.

Good times will return, and tax collections will rebound. But if the public worker compensation continues apace, taxpayers won’t be able to keep up. They are barely able to now.

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