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Report: top city posts are underpaid

The administration will recommend pay hikes for several department heads.

City department heads are under-compensated by as much as 31 percent compared to their peers in other area municipalities, a new survey of salaries and benefits says.

The city administration will likely recommend salary hikes for several top posts, either to take effect mid-year or with the 2005 budget, interim city Administrator Lee Walton said Friday.

“I think we have a pretty good management staff,” Walton said. “If we want to keep these people, we need to be competitive.”

At issue are the salaries and benefits for directors of the public works, finance, planning and information technology departments, and the police chief.

The survey found that those department heads are paid from 12-18 percent less than their peers in comparable cities – 29 percent less, in the case of the police chief.

The posts currently pay between $6,800 and $7,300 per month in total compensation, compared to a range of $8,200 to $8,800 for the same posts in peer cities.

The Bainbridge city administrator’s post, which Walton will be vacating next month as new hire Mary Jo Briggs takes over, is now paid 31 percent less than in peer cities, the study found.

But the mayor’s office and council are currently negotiating salary and benefits for that post on a contract basis, so no hike will be recommended.

“Comparable” cities used in the study included Port Angeles, Marysville, Mountake Terrace, Bothell, Mercer Island, Issaquah, Des Moines, Lacey and Tumwater. Their relevance was determined by population, assessed valuation, size of city staff and other factors.

The findings were presented to the City Council’s finance committee Monday; committee members Debbie Vancil, Bob Scales and Nezam Tooloee unanimously recommended that the administration prepare a new compensation plan for key posts, and bring it back to the council.

The issue came to light as the city has tried to fill a number of high-profile vacancies over the past 18 months, including administrator, finance director and city engineer.

Walton said the top two recruits for the city engineer post balked at the job because of the low pay – they were already making more than Bainbridge Island’s public works director, to whom the engineer reports.

A longstanding policy of paying out year-end performance bonuses still left compensation lagging behind other cities, Walton said.

“It’s an issue that’s been smoldering since before I got here, but nobody’s brought it up to address it,” he said.

Mayor Darlene Kordonowy agreed that salary adjustments are warranted, and predicted that the council will give its support.

“Expecting government to do more with less can only happen if you have really capable people,” she said.

The city has also looked at compensation for mid-level managers, with several minor adjustments recommended.

Salaries for rank and file employees have tended to keep up with peer cities over the years through collective bargaining. But non-unionized managers haven’t had anyone acting in their behalf.

Walton said the real fear is that top department heads will be recruited by other cities or private firms.

“We’ve got some skills there that we’ve got to pay what the market allows, or we’re going to lose them,” Walton said. “How are you going to keep them on the farm when they’ve seen Paris?”

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