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Raises sound wrong, but they are right

Would it surprise you to know that Kauai’s police chief receives a salary of $127,313, but a police sergeant, with overtime, can make as much as $191,764?

Or that the fire chief gets $127,733, but a mid-level firefighter — again with overtime, which the chief cannot receive — is paid as much as $145,417?

Or that the finance director makes $119,357 while the accounting systems administrator, with $35,104 in overtime, gets $147,922?

Or, finally, that the county’s chief engineer gets $119,357, while the base salary — including no overtime — for a civil engineer in the department can be as much as $143,934?

If you find these disparities jarring and wonder if they don’t make it harder for Kauai County to attract top department heads, you’d be right.

Consider:

• The Kauai Fire Department hasn’t had a chief since the retirement late last year of Chief Robert Westerman.

• The Kauai Police Department was finally able to hire a retired captain from the police department in Las Vegas to succeed retired chief Darryl Perry — but only after senior ranking KPD officers declined to apply for the job because they couldn’t afford to take the pay cut or wanted to retire themselves and not have to take on the extensive responsibilities of being chief.

• The county engineer position remains filled on acting basis after the previous engineer departed to work for the Hawaii Department of Transportation in part because he has young children and needed to improve his salary situation.

Welcome, essentially again or still, to the world of something called “salary inversion,” a situation that arises when the top administrator of a public agency, as a practical matter, earns far less than the people who work for him or her.

On Wednesday, the Kauai County Council (salary recommendation: $67,956 per year) will debate a report by the county Salary Commission on whether to accept a series of raises for top officials. This has become nearly an annual ritual, in which the Salary Commission makes recommendations that actually make sense in terms of keeping Kauai competitive with other governments throughout the state, only to have trouble getting the proposal past the council, whose members resist being seen as handing fat pay increases to themselves and other government officials.

There were no raises for these officials at all between 2008 and 2015. Current salaries were set in 2016, but lag well behind other jurisdictions.

The matter came up two weeks ago and was tabled until Wednesday’s meeting only because council member Arthur Brun was unable to attend the meeting and Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro concluded that the remaining six members were split 3-3, so the measure could not advance.

Little wonder, then, that if you wonder about the quality of public services on Kauai, you need only look at how competitive the salaries are for the people who run the daily work of the departments.

For example, Kauai’s county attorney makes $119,357 a year, but the same office in Hawaii County pays $153,228. The exact same disparity holds true for prosecuting attorney. Kauai’s water department director makes $119,357, but the head of the exact same department in Honolulu gets $180,019. Kauai’s county clerk gets that same base, but her counterpart on Oahu makes $160,920.

While we’re at it, Honolulu’s fire chief gets $192,528 and its police chief $198,840. If using Oahu figures is seen as cherry picking, though, these two chief positions in both Hawaii and Maui counties also receive far more than the comparable officials here. Maui’s police chief receives $155,736 while Hawaii County’s fire chief gets $151,200.

All of the salary figures mentioned in this column are taken from the Salary Commission’s report to the council dated March 11.

Even with increases recommended in the report, Kauai County will still lag its competitors. The recommended salaries include $137,022 for the police chief and fire chief, as well as numerous others. The raises are generally about 7.6 percent.

The report included testimony from public hearings the commission held to set the new recommended salaries. One of the people who testified was Mary Kay Hertog, chair of the police commission.

Here is what she said of the situation: “Potential contenders within KPD stated the primary reason (they did not apply) was they would take a significant cut in pay if they became chief.” Even out of state applicants were reluctant, Hertog testified. “They stated it didn’t make sense to incur the expense to move to Kauai where they would take on more responsibility for less pay,” she said of the search.

It was even more complicated than that, she said. “We also wondered why no recent in-state police retirees … applied,” she testified. “We learned it was because their retirement pay would be held by the state, as ‘double dipping’ is not allowed. This state level decision will most likely never change, but it’s clear it has had an impact on retired local officers, who may be very qualified, to want to compete for this position.”

Hertog’s testimony concluded with one sentence: “I ask that you consider drafting a resolution to ask for a raise in the base salary of the police chief.”

Westerman said the situation also keeps talented younger members of the fire department from pursuing promotions, in part because they can hold onto lower level jobs and make far more than their supervisors.

“If they can stay at a lower level position and make more money with a lot less responsibility, why progress?” he said.

“This is not only detrimental financially to the individual and family, but to the county when a firefighter says ‘Oh, well, I’ll do only what I’m paid for and not try to improve.’”

At the level of elected officials, voting to raise pay for department heads is almost always criticized as fattening already fat cats, or laying the groundwork for raising pay for the elected officials themselves, though existing law generally prohibits an elected official from voting for a raise that will become effective during his or her current term in office.

In Kauai, though, this kneejerk reaction has become so entrenched over time so much that the county has now removed itself from any role as a competitive salary environment for its top officials. Council members fear enraged reactions from their constituents if they vote for any pay increases, so they don’t do what would make sense, which is to make Kauai a competitive place for top administrative talent.

With fresh faces on the council this year and the potential for a true partnership between the mayor and the council, 2019 is the year when these recommendations should be taken seriously and voted into effect. Far from becoming a budget boondoggle, such a step would make Kauai County a better place.

•••

Allan Parachini is a former public relations executive who makes furniture, lives in Kilauea and writes periodically for The Garden Island.
Source: The Garden Island

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