County must do better job of managing costs

Under our County Charter since 2006 there has been a salary commission appointed by the mayor which has authority to recommend salaries for officers, key employees and the council. Under the charter terms, the commission makes its recommendations to the council and they are considered adopted unless the council rejects some or all of them with a supermajority of five or more member vote.

Earlier this year, the commission submitted recommendations for increase is salary ranges for 21 upper-tier key employees, including the mayor, 11 lower-tier employees and the seven council members. If approved, the increases authorized would effectively increase county payroll by over $600,000 per year.

Although the council initially resisted an increase for itself and other increases, the Salary Commission persisted and on April 11 reoffered proposed salary range increases for key employees.

The council strangely approved the increase for the upper-tier employees but rejected the increases for the lower tier. Council member salaries were not increased. The annual cost of the proposed increases authorized amount to about $500,000 per year.

During its consideration, some council members expressed concern about the fact that, although the county had an unappropriated surplus earlier, it no longer did, and that the county was now “broke” unless taxes were raised.

Councilmember Kagawa rightly observed, “Our job is to manage the budget and spend within our means. At this time we don’t need to be proposing significant new taxes and fees on our people — the only source that these raises would come from.”

The mayor also opined that he did not know of any instance where an employee might leave employment because his salary was inadequate. While the annual budget setting is ongoing and funds may be located for salary increases, the impasse reflects a flaw in the county’s practices under the charter.

In considering the proper amount for county key employees, the commission takes into account the general job market, salaries of subordinate staff and salaries for comparable positions in other Hawaiian counties, but it does not reflect on the very key factor — the county’s ability to pay. It is left to the council, and to some extent the mayor and department heads to balance the adequacy of the employee’s compensation and the taxpayers burden.

In my view, we need a better system to manage our employment costs. Having a county manager would be a helpful step.

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Walter Lewis is a retired attorney and a resident of Kauai.

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