Round of raises proposed

LIHUE — Raises may be on the horizon for some top county officials whose salaries have been frozen for nearly five years.

The county Salary Commission, by a 6-0 vote, approved a measure that would raise the maximum salary limit for 22 department heads by a total of $150,265. Salary Commission Chair Michael Machado was absent and did not vote on the proposed raises.

“Remember, there have been no raises for five years except for police and fire, so this would be a big step,” Salary Commission Vice Chair Randy Finlay said. “It’s pretty substantial.”

In all, the maximum salaries for 49 top-level county employees, which are set and reviewed by the Salary Commission each year, amounted to nearly $4.9 million this fiscal year. The proposed raises, meanwhile, would bump that amount to a little more than $5 million, if no changes are made by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. or the Kauai County Council.

If it is approved, it would mark the first time that some department heads received a raise since 2008, when Carvalho instituted a pay freeze for top-level employees. County Managing Director Nadine Nakamura said these pay freezes have saved the county up to $1.4 million over the past six years.

“The members of the Salary Commission have always been diligent in their duty to make good sound recommendations,” Carvalho wrote in an email. “I have faith that these recommendations are based on a comprehensive analysis of our salary structure and a comparison with the other counties.”

Some county officials, however, say they are uncomfortable with the raises.

“At this point, I would think that, if we’re broke, we cannot afford to give any raises until we solve our budget woes — I think we need to freeze the raises for now,” Kauai County Councilman Ross Kagawa said. “It is said that department heads could make more in the private sector, but part of serving in a department head position is giving back to the public and helping the county. I feel like we can still get good public servants out there even if we don’t have competitive pay with the private sector — a lot of people do give that up because they want a chance to make the county better.”

Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she is concerned about how pay increases for all county employees, including those approved by the Salary Commission, will impact the county’s budget next year.

Collective bargaining raises for county employees represented by United Public Workers, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, State of Hawaii Police Officers Union and Hawaii Government Employees Association will cost taxpayers an additional $4.9 million next year.

Salary negotiations between county officials and four HGEA collective bargaining units, meanwhile, are ongoing but could cost taxpayers an additional $3.97 million next year.

That adds up to nearly $9 million in pay raises for county employees.

“When I try to see where we’re going with this, I’m going, ‘We can’t keep going this way,’” Yukimura said. “Something has to shift or be addressed because the well-being of the whole county, including civil service, is at stake.”

The current salary system, she said, is disjointed because it allows some unionized county employees, especially those in the Kauai Fire Department and Kauai Police Department, to have higher salaries than some department heads.

“We’re a very fragmented system of making salary decisions — I mean, we have separate unions, unions appointing officials and the Salary Commission,” Yukimura said. “If you look at a corporation, there’s somebody paying attention to all of these relationships so they don’t get out of hand with people and different entities making separated decisions.”

Under the proposed changes, Department of Human Resources officials in February would provide Salary Commissioners with a list of non-elected officers and employees under their jurisdiction who received satisfactory performance evaluations.

Changes approved in 2013 allow Carvalho and all Kauai County Councilmembers to receive an annual $6,000 car and cell phone allowance on top of their salaries.

Many of the officials who would not receive pay raises under the Salary Commission proposal benefited from previous hikes approved in 2009 and 2012, including Prosecuting Attorney Justin Kollar, Deputy Police Chief Michael Contrades, Deputy Fire Chief John Blalock, County Clerk Ricky Watanabe, County Auditor Ernesto Pasion, and all seven Kauai County Councilmembers.

“We’re trying to balance upward pressures from bargaining unit employees, upward pressures from middle-management employees who we don’t set salaries for, and trying to observe what other counties are doing — that’s really the primary source of information that we have to work with,” Finlay said.

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Darin Moriki, county government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com. Follow him on Twitter at @darinmoriki.

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