Salary Commission nixes big raises

  • Comparable top official salaries.

The county Salary Commission on Thursday rejected across-the-board average 6.1% raises for county officials, but settled on a 1.25% cost-of-living adjustment instead.

The commission voted 2-4, killing a package giving raises of about $5,600 for each position, a 3.4% to 7.5% increase. The mayor, for example, would have seen his pay rise to $168,223 annually; the County Council chairman would have been paid $82,657 and a council member would have gotten $75,649.

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It then voted 6-1 for a cost-of-living hike. The measure proceeds to the commission’s Aug. 28 meeting, where a full report will be available for the public before the vote is formalized.

Commissioner Nelson Harano was the no vote on both measures. The Kona representative was skeptical that the county would raise the revenue it’s forecast to, especially the $845,000 it predicts will come this year from signing up transient vacation rental operators. That amounts to 17,000 rental fees, he said, while the county so far hasn’t signed up 5,000 as it faces a September deadline.

“I would like to see county government from their side put out a little more revenue that’s telling us they can afford this raise,” Harano said. “I would like to see government do more. … It seems every single time there’s a budget shortfall, it seems the residents pay for the budget shortfall.”

Other commissioners who voted against the larger increase cited the uncertainty and extra costs revolving around the standoff on Maunakea, the continuing recovery from last year’s volcanic eruption and the slowing economy statewide as reasons to be conservative with raises.

Top 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%. Prior to that, most officials hadn’t seen a raise in five years and some hadn’t gotten raises in nearly a decade.

Commissioner Jim Higgins proposed the 1.25% increase, to begin Jan. 1, after he joined Harano and Commissioners J.A. Greenbaum and Florence Ikeda voting no on the larger raise.

“Our folks are working really hard compared to other counties, and they certainly deserve a pay raise,” Higgins said, “but a lot of folks are still hurting on this island.”

The commission studied a comparison of Hawaii County salaries with comparable positions in state government and governments of the other three counties. As would be expected, Hawaii County salaries are lower than those in Honolulu.

Hawaii County’s mayor and managing director make more than those on Maui and Kauai, while other positions vary, according to the comparison.

Commission Chairman George Campbell reminded the commissioners the county charter charges them with comparing equivalent public and private-sector salaries to arrive at equitable salaries for officials and not to dwell on whether the county can afford it. While it’s been difficult to get the private sector to divulge high-level salaries, the public-sector data should serve as a guide, he said.

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“I know most of us on this commission have concerns about the budget,” Campbell said, “but the bottom line, our charge is to do what’s right and see that people we provide salary increases for that are appropriate and right.”

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

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