Council gives county executive a hefty raise
By Jack Kintner
A sharply divided Whatcom County Council voted 4-3 to give county executive Pete Kremen an 11 percent raise spread over two years last week, one side claiming that the raise was necessary because his salary was too far below “what the market demands” and the other calling the raise “obscene.”
The council’s action means that Kremen’s salary will increase $4,673 next year, from $132,827 to $137,500, and in 2010 jump $9,524 to $147,024. This resolution was reached after the council tried to rescind a 6 percent salary increase generated last summer by the state legislature’s raising the salaries of county prosecutors.
When the state legislature’s salary commission raised prosecutor’s salaries Kremen got an automatic raise as well to $141,000 effective last July 1 because Whatcom county policy is to pay the executive 101 percent of the prosecutor’s salary. Prosecutors’ salaries are set in part by the state because prosecutors are responsible for enforcing state criminal laws in superior court.
County attorney Dan Gibson doubted that the attempt to rescind the earlier raise was legal because at the time, the Whatcom County charter required that the executive’s salary be 101 percent of the county prosecutor’s compensation.
The action raising the salaries occurred on July 1, but the county council didn’t rescind the raise until October 8. State law prohibits lowering an elected official’s salary during his term of office, so last week’s action also canceled the earlier resolution that tried to rescind Kremen’s raise.
The policy of tying the executive’s salary to the prosecutor’s salary was tossed out, but the two-step pay raise will still have the executive’s salary at the 101 percent figure by 2010.
Council member Sam Crawford, who introduced last week’s resolution to raise Kremen’s compensation, said that keeping county salaries in line with market demands was important. “I’ll agree that the raises are generous, but we lost three department heads last year because of salary issues, including public works director Jeff Monsen, planning department director Hal Hart and water resources director Bruce Roll.”
Crawford added that having “elected officials make less than their department heads doesn’t make sense. The extra salary provides incentive to run for office. Otherwise no one would run and instead just work on the staff.” Currently there are 13 elected county positions, including treasurer, auditor, assessor, prosecuting attorney, sheriff, executive and seven council members.
But council member Barbara Brenner strongly opposed raises for anyone making that much. “In this terrible economic time it is obscene for the council majority to give 6.6 percent raises to elected officials,” Brenner said. “We are public servants who should be setting an example of doing without when so many are losing their jobs.”
Brenner unsuccessfully moved to freeze all elected officials salaries, pointing out that the raise would also bump Kremen’s monthly retirement pay by an estimated $1,100, to $6,600 per month. Council member Laurie Caskey-Schreiber agreed with Brenner, and Carl Weimer also opposed Crawford’s resolution that granted the raises, saying the council had been “hoodwinked.” Council members Seth Fleetwood, Ward Nelson and Bob Kelley supported Crawford and his resolution passed.
According to Kremen’s assistant Dewey Desler, Kremen himself took no position on the raise. “It didn’t start with Pete but came about as a result of changed state requirements that had local ramifications,” he said.
“We do need to remain competitive for positions that require significant skill levels and expertise. But it’s good that the whole thing is over and done with now.”