Inside Opinion

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Tag: public employee pay


County budget strained by legacy union contracts

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

Pierce County government is on its way up.

Headed northward: fees to use county parks and facilities, the cost of a permit to remodel a house, sewer rates – all a part of the 2011 county budget approved by the County Council this week to cover an anticipated $8 million deficit.

Something else that’s rising: county salaries.

Thanks to employment contracts negotiated before county officials realized the full scope of the recession, county workers will get raises of at least 2.5 percent this year.
In many cases, the bumps will be offset by furloughs and higher health care costs. But long after those savings are recouped, the 2011 raises will remain a part of employees’ base salaries and become an ongoing cost of doing business for Pierce County.

That incremental escalation of worker compensation has a high cost.

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Cost of Tacoma pay raises: $11 million and counting

An addendum to my post last week about the City of Tacoma figuring the costs of new union contracts: The city got back to me yesterday with more numbers.

These are the contracts that were negotiated last year. It appears it was good to go first: Four bargaining units representing 172 employees negotiated contracts with new salary schedules that boosted pay in many cases an average of 13 percent.

The total cost of pay raises for those four bargaining units: $1 million in 2009 and $1 million again this year. That brings us to a total of nine

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City of Tacoma runs numbers on new union contracts

A while back, I vented some frustrations about trying to get salary data from the City of Tacoma. I had asked city staff for the average salary increase given city workers in 2010 and was told that it varied by union because of an ongoing effort to rejigger pay scales to more appropriately reflect job duties and market pay.

City officials couldn’t tell me at the time what the average pay raise per bargaining unit was, nor what net impact the contracts had had on the city budget, but they promised to get back to me. Today, spokesman Rob McNair-Huff emailed me that information. Here’s what we now know, with more to come:

• City employees who belong to the five unions that settled contracts with 2010 effective dates received average increases ranging from 4 percent (wastewater technicians, operators and electricians) to nearly 11 percent (supervisors in customer service, fire electrical and traffic operations).

• The cost of paying those raises was nearly $2.9 million in 2010. About $1.6 million of that is paid from general tax revenue; the remainder comes from Tacoma Public Utilities receipts.

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What’s happening with City of Tacoma pay? We can’t say.

It began Wednesday with a call to Tacoma City Hall to find out what, if any, cost-of-living increases city workers received this year. I was trying to gather local information for an editorial about what’s happening up in King County, where government workers are going without COLAs, as they are called, to minimize layoffs as agencies grapple with budget shortfalls.

The answer to my question was easy to come by: Yes, the city had given at least some employees raises this year and last. But nailing down how much of a raise – and what the cost to the city budget has been – is proving much more difficult to discern.

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Survey isn’t a true measure of state workers’ pay

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Numbers don’t lie, crowed the Washington Federation of State Employees last week, cheering the release of a state survey that concluded state employees are underpaid.

If only it were that simple. Numbers themselves may not lie, but they have been known to deceive.

The state’s survey, commissioned by the state Department of Personnel, is surely of assistance to employee unions seeking to bargain bigger salaries. But the survey, as incomplete and skewed as it is, is of limited use as a public policy tool.

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Another perspective on public employee compensation

State Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, emailed me after reading my post about the gap between public and private sector employee benefits. She called attention to a recent study by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security.

Its findings are quite a bit different than those of the former BusinessWeek economist I cited earlier. For starters, this study disputes the claim that government employees and private sector workers earn about the same. Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data and adjusting for differences in earning power, the researchers

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The large – and growing gap – between private and public sector benefits

Our editorial yesterday on the Pierce County payroll made reference to the recession’s effect on the standing of private sector workers relative to their public sector counterparts.

The gap shows up most prominently in the area of worker benefits. Michael Mandel, a former BusinessWeek chief economist, took a look recently at some Bureau of Labor Statistics data. His findings not only dispute the age-old idea that state and local government employees are paid less than private sector workers, they also reveal a growing gulf in health care and retirement benefits.

Somewhere in 2004, the world changed, and

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Rich benefits help drive county’s six-figure payroll

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.

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