To raise or not to raise? Salary Commission punts until next month

With union-negotiated raises for county rank-and-file workers averaging 2% to 3% annually, the county Salary Commission is grappling once again with whether to raise salaries for the top 40 county officials during a tight budget year.

Commissioners agreed Thursday to hold off at least another month, when the commission will seek input from Mayor Harry Kim to see how much the county can afford. The meeting is set for June 27.

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The county hasn’t yet recovered from the several disasters of 2018, said Commissioner James Higgins. He noted that 70% of the county’s operating budget is tied up in salaries, benefits, retirement and payment on old debt.

“My big question is whether government on the Big Island is affordable. … Can taxpayers pay for the cost of government?” asked Higgins. “Government is stretching every wallet they can get their hands on to pay for all of this.”

Commissioner Harold Dow took a different stance. He said Hawaii County has some of the lowest property taxes in the nation, and although people may complain about increases, they can afford them.

“We should decide as citizens what kind of government do we want, what kind of government do we need, what kind of government do we demand,” Dow said. “Then we should pay for it.”

Commissioner Tom Fratinardo, meanwhile, said the commission is required under the county charter to set salaries that bear a reasonable relationship to salaries for comparable public and private sector jobs. It may not be popular to give raises, but it’s the commission’s job, he said.

“Are we going to kick the can down the road? … We’re going to have to bite the bullet somehow,” Fratinardo said. “We’re always going to be playing catch-up, catch-up, catch-up. … We’re going to take heat if we don’t and we’re going to take heat if we do.”

The officials, including the mayor, County Council, prosecuting attorney, department heads and deputies, last received raises in 2017, when they saw increases of $16,700 to $42,900, or 13.2% to 39.7%.

Now on the table for the top officials are raises of about $5,600 for each position, a 3.4% to 7.5% increase. The mayor, for example, would see his pay rise to $168,223 annually; the County Council chairman would be paid $82,657 and a council member would get $75,649.

Salary commissions on Maui and Oahu recently approved 3% to 3.5% salary increases for their top officials.

Of concern to Hawaii County’s commission is the concept of “salary inversion,” where, because of overtime, subordinates are making more than their bosses. Salaried officials don’t get overtime no matter how many hours they work.

That’s important to the Police Commission, which has recommended in two votes that the chief and deputy chief make 10% and 5%, respectively, over the highest paid subordinate.

The Fire Commission, on the other hand, has voted to recommend no raises at this time.

“In spite of the leadership skills demonstrated by Chief (Darren) Rosario and his entire department, the Fire Commission feels that with the county’s coffers so drained from the 2018 disasters, now would not be a good time to increase salaries,” Fire Commission Chairman Greg Henkel told the Salary Commission.

A staff shortage causing others to work more overtime seems a common theme, said Higgins.

“Nobody was really asking for a pay raise,” Higgins said. “Mostly I saw a degree of complaints about being understaffed.”

Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela, who received the biggest raise during the last round of increases, told the commission that his lowest paid deputy attorney can’t under the charter make less than 50% of either corporation counsel (the top civil attorney) or prosecuting attorney (the top criminal attorney), whichever is greater.

Kamelamela is in line for a 3.6% increase to $158,869 annually, under the plan being considered. Asked outright if he thinks he should get a raise, Kamelamela said he’d leave it up to the commission.

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“It shouldn’t be decreased,” he told the commission. “I don’t feel that I’m overpaid.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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