Boosting salary for county elected officials reasonable, yet also risky

Commissioners might have gone too far in granting 6 percent raises, but did so knowing the possible political peril.

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In agreeing to thaw the salaries for Walla Walla County’s elected officials frozen since 2012, the three commissioners might be stepping on some thin ice — politically speaking.

Commissioners this week voted to increase salaries by 6 percent in 2014 for the county assessor, auditor, clerk, coroner, prosecuting attorney, sheriff and treasurer. Commissioners did not change their salaries.

In what is hoped to be the wake of the Great Recession — a four to five year period that hit local governments particularly hard — a 6 percent boost in pay seems generous.

Still, the economy is showing some solid signs of recovery. Workers, whether in the public or private sector, should expect regular pay raises under normal economic circumstances to reward their work and to offset the always rising prices of goods and services.

County employees, many of whom are represented by unions, got a 2.16 percent salary increase this year and a mixed bag the past few years, most being modest.

Commissioners took the positions that the current salaries for appointed department heads are “bumping up” against the salaries earned by the elected officials who are their supervisors. Commissioners also made the point that competitive salaries are needed to attract qualified candidates to seek those offices.

It’s a reasonable approach, although commissioners could have made the same points with a smaller raise. A 4 percent boost — even 2.16 percent — might have been satisfactory.

The new pay scale for elected officials is not outrageous for the responsibilities. In 2014, the salary for the assessor, auditor, clerk and treasurer will be will be $72,982. The sheriff’s pay will increase to $97,123 and the prosecutor to $127,187, although $74,416 is paid by the state. The coroner, which is considered a part-time position, will be $58,385. The commissioners’ salary will remain $68,851.

But many of the commissioner’s constituents have not seen a 6 percent raise — or any raise — in the past five years, so this raise could rankle voters. Times are still tough for many folks in the Valley. However, it is possible many could embrace the pay hikes.

The county’s elected positions will be contested on the 2014 ballot except Commissioners Perry Dozier and Jim Johnson, who will be up for election in 2016.

That’s an opportunity for voters to have the final word on the officials’ job performance.

Commissioners made a reasonable decision granting pay raises and certainly knew they could be taking a political risk in the process.

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