Working for a city is an industry in itself in Whatcom County.
Cities throughout the county spent roughly $51.7 million last year to staff police stations, planning departments and road crews -- with $41.2 million alone coming from the city of Bellingham. That's about the same amount the county's wood products, and food manufacturers, general retailers and the forest and logging industry each pay out in salaries annually.
But while municipal employee salaries make up a large portion of the county's economy, comparisons show most taxpayers are getting a fair deal for their money.
A series of public disclosure requests by The Bellingham Herald found municipal salaries in the county about average with similar-sized cities across the state. However, as officials try to recruit the best candidates while facing different budget pressures, salaries remain disparate city to city.
Across the county, Bellingham's mayor sits atop the salary pyramid. A three-term elected mayor, Mark Asmundson makes $111,420 a year with benefits. Behind him are Fire Chief Bill Boyd and Police Chief Randy Carroll, who each make $106,716 a year with benefits.
Chief Administrative Officer Malcolm Fleming, Public Works Director Dick McKinley and Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev round out the city's top six paid employees, each making $106,128 a year.
Compared to other cities close to Bellingham's population, the city has similar pay rates for its top municipal employees, according to a yearly salary study by the Association of Washington Cities. For instance, pay for police chiefs in cities with more than 50,000 residents ranges from $74,964 for the lowest salary grade in Kennewick to $167,076 for the highest in Seattle.
While most salaries fit the average ranges across the state, Bellingham's chief administrative officer ranks as one of the lowest paid among Washington's large cities. For instance, someone working the same job in Renton could make from $113,460 to $138,156 a year.
But determining a city employee's salary isn't as simple as matching salaries from similar-sized cities.
Cities use several "comparables" when determining salary, including the tax-assessed value of property within the city limits and the amounts of property and sales tax the city collects. Coupled with population, the comparables work as a "four-stage sieve," helping officials make salary decisions, said Ferndale City Administrator Greg Young.
The process can cause problems. With every city trying to find a middle ground, salaries gradually creep higher and higher, Young said.
"Part of it is literally your ability to pay," he said.
That ability to pay in part might explain why some top employee salaries in Ferndale tend toward the bottom of like-sized cities. Historically, Ferndale has not collected much in sales tax because it lacks retail stores, Young said.
"All the factors being equal, as we grow and develop commercially ... you'll see salaries creep upwards," he said.
Other times, salaries rise based on the job performance, experience or length of employment. While Bellingham's mayor makes the most of any city employee in the county, Lynden City Administrator Bill Verwolf trails close behind.
Verwolf makes $106,176 a year, above the average pay for a city administrator in a city the size of Lynden, according to the Association of Washington Cities study.
Lynden Mayor Jack Louws said Verwolf's high pay came from his experience before becoming city administrator in 2001. Louws, mayor since 2002, called Verwolf "exceptional."
"We realize his pay is up there in comparison to the rest of the county," Louws said. "But we have high expectations for him, and he's delivering on them."
Even the highest municipal salaries cannot match the pay for those in positions of power in private industry. For instance, Washington Federal Inc., a Seattle-based bank chain specializing in real estate loans, has about 100 fewer employees than the city of Bellingham. The bank's CEO, Roy Whitehead, makes at least $344,837 a year, according to an annual survey by the Puget Sound Business Journal.
In part to stay competitive, the city of Bellingham soon will commission a salary study of its executive staff. The study, part of a three-year cycle, will include mayor, the chief administrative officer, the city's lobbyist, department heads and the chief and assistant chiefs of the police and fire departments.
Even after the study, expect city salaries to lag behind those in the private sector. Jo Zeimet, the city of Bellingham's human resources director, offered an adage as to why - municipal salaries are typically lower but benefits are higher.
However, Zeimet said pay to the city's information technology staff may be behind the market and could see a jump.
"Some sectors of the market are moving faster than others," she said.