LIHUE — Top County of Kauai officials say something must be done to correct current policies that allow some lower ranking employees, particularly those within the Kauai police and fire departments, to earn more than department heads.
It’s a longstanding issue that, some officials say, has become more pronounced during this fiscal year after all seven of the county’s collective bargaining units negotiated pay raises for most unionized employees late last year.
“I don’t want this to seem like we (the deputy fire chief and I) are beating to get a pay raise for ourselves because that isn’t the case and I don’t want the public to misunderstand that,” Kauai Fire Department Chief Robert Westerman told county Salary Commissioners on Monday. “When you have this kind of inversion in salaries, it makes it extremely difficult for me as a chief to try and get members of the fire department to stand up and say, ‘Hey, I want to be chief, I want all the responsibilities that comes with being the chief, but I want to do it for $30,000 or $40,000 less than what I’m making today.’”
In all, 21 firefighters earn wages that are higher than Westerman’s annual $114,490 salary, while 32 firefighters earn more than Deputy Fire Chief John Blalock.
“We can’t avoid inversions, but we’re going to look at the salaries that we take care of,” Salary Commissioner Cammie Matsumoto said in response to the proposal.
The capped salaries for Blalock and Westerman, like most department heads, are determined by the Salary Commission and can be modified or rejected by the mayor or the Kauai County Council.
“No way,” Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said when asked about the proposal. “Do you know what kind of bill that’s going to produce for taxpayers? If you extrapolate all of the salaries to the police chief and deputy police chief, then that creates distortions across other county departments that make it inequitable. If you raise all of those, then you have to raise the salaries of the managing director and the mayor — when does it end and to what cost and what is the increase in value?”
Pay increases for most other county employees are outlined in agreements forged with the county’s seven collective bargaining units and four labor unions — United Public Workers, Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association and State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.
About $4 million in additional expenditures were tacked onto the 2014-2015 fiscal year budget pay for collective bargaining raises that were approved late last year for county employees.
“Pay inversion is not a new phenomenon for the county, nor is it unique to Kauai,” County of Kauai spokeswoman Beth Tokioka wrote in an email. “In fact, it’s a byproduct of the collective bargaining process when workers are employed by the county or the state for a long period of time and are promoted over the years to the highest levels of civil service.”
Supervisors making less than some of their staff is already occurring in several departments, according to county Salary Commission documents.
In the county’s Department of Public Works, collective bargaining raises negotiated last year caused the salaries for two civil engineers, with a rank of 7, to increase by 8 percent between July 2013 and July 2014. This took their salaries from $110,112 and $114,444 to $119,172 and $123,504, respectively.
The salaries for County Engineer Larry Dill and Deputy County Engineer Lyle Tabata, meanwhile, were frozen at $107,335 and $98,748. Their last raise was in 2008.
In the Kauai Police Department, two police inspectors experienced a 1.75 percent bump in pay between July 2013 and July 2014.
This caused their salaries, according to county Salary Commission documents, to increase from $125,496 and $126,684 to $127,698 and $128,904, respectively.
The salaries for Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry and Deputy Police Chief Michael Contrades, who were last given a raise in July 2013, were held at $114,490 and $105,660. Perry said in previous interviews he expects to retire sometime soon.
“Usually, it’s a relatively few number of employees who are inverted and it’s due to the unique circumstances and longevity of their employment,” Tokioka said. “It’s a difficult challenge to address and probably can never be completely eliminated. Every year we honor employees who have hit milestones of 20 years, 25 years, and even 30 years with the county.”
The difference in pay, at least for the Kauai Fire Department, is greater when other collective bargaining benefits come into play, Westerman said.
These benefits, he said, include about $6,000 more each year for automatic holiday pay and $25,000 for the department’s Rank for Rank training program, which is designed to ensure that junior employees can carry out the duties of ranked officers on leave.
“You’re always going to have some inversion invariably for pretty much any department unless … you say I want 2 percent to go to every department head of the highest paid employee from the previous year, beginning at the start of the next fiscal year,” Westerman said. “That would be a way to do it, but now, we’re all going to have different salaries, so now the issue is why are all the department heads making different amounts?”
Perry, from the Kauai Police Department, agreed.
“There is normally a 10 percent difference between ranks, with the higher ranks being compensated at a higher rate of pay,” Perry wrote in a June 10 letter to Salary Commissioners. “We are requesting that the inversion of pay for the chief of police and deputy chief of police be corrected and that a policy is established, giving an automatic increase in pay to the chief and deputy chief when the lower ranks receive a pay increase to ensure that an inversion does not occur in the future.”
Some county officials, however, say that creating a policy that would authorize automatic pay increases could have serious consequences.
Council Chair Jay Furfaro said pay increases for department heads should not be granted automatically when the wages of lower ranking employees are adjusted.
Instead, he said, capped salaries for department heads should be based on independent performance reviews, such as those conducted by the county’s Fire and Police Commissions, and whether funding is already available for any pay increases.
“I think the first step is we need to recognize that people who go into those positions should be entitled to merit increases,” Jay Furfaro said. “I’m not basically denying anybody in senior management the ability to pursue a performance increase, but I’m saying that doesn’t happen with the department head going to the Salary Commission — it happens when the department head goes to commissioners and then there being a performance review that measures against certain key result areas or objectives.”
Calls to the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, which represents Kauai Police Department employees, were not returned Tuesday before press time.
The Salary Commission will take up this issue again during their next meeting scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday, Nov. 10 in the county’s Moikeha Building Meeting Room 2A/2B.