Bellingham port director gets 10 percent pay increase

Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix.
Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The Port of Bellingham Commission approved a 10 percent pay raise for 2015 for Executive Director Rob Fix on Tuesday, Jan. 20.

The raise boosted Fix’s base pay to about $158,000, up from $143,920 in 2014.

The pay bump makes Fix one of the highest-paid public employees in the county. He’ll make more than Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, whose base pay is $153,865; Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran and the four superior court judges, $156,363; and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, $138,156.

Each year, the commission votes on the director’s salary in a public process. In the past, the annual raise has typically been around 3 percent, or a cost of living adjustment.

But on Tuesday, commissioner Mike McAuley moved to authorize a one-time 10 percent boost, saying it would put Fix’s salary more in line with salaries paid to directors and managers at other ports around the state.

“This is one of the things I’ve been concerned about since I was (elected),” McAuley said in an interview. “When we were hiring Charlie Sheldon several years ago, there were a lot of people with the Washington Public Employees Association who raised their eyebrows about the pay we were offering.”

Sheldon was hired in 2010, with a salary of $135,000, which was about $8,000 more than that of the previous director. Sheldon was forced to resign in April of 2012 after months of criticism from then-commissioner Scott Walker, who was joined by commissioner Jim Jorgensen in a vote to oust Sheldon.

Fix, then the port’s chief financial officer, served as interim director while the commission conducted a search to fill the spot, which was being offered for between $135,000 and $155,000.

After holding a public forum in October 2012 to have the public weigh in on three finalists for the job, the commission made a surprise move and instead hired Fix for the job.

Commissioners Dan Robbins, McAuley and Jorgensen all said Tuesday that Fix had done a good job and deserved a higher salary based on the sheer amount of things on his plate.

“I think it’s important the public is aware, probably you are, that our port is involved with marinas in Blaine, with the airport, and we have a lot of involvement with the Bellingham Port district that is not in other districts where their executive directors are getting paid higher,” Jorgensen said.

Robbins said he agreed that Bellingham’s salary didn’t match up with other ports.

“Some of them don’t make sense at all, when you look at $143,000 in Bellingham, with 99 employees, and Ridgefield with six employees and that executive makes $141,000,” Robbins said.

For comparison, the city of Bellingham has about 850 employees, and Whatcom County has about 828 full-time positions.

In an interview Wednesday, Robbins said he had broached the idea of offering a higher raise last year, but Fix told him he just wanted the cost of living raise like everyone else since he was still new to the job.

“You look at the executive salaries and (Fix’s) was 13th. That just didn’t seem right,” Robbins said. “To be honest, he’s drastically underpaid, but I could never pay him what he’d make in the private sector.”

Bellingham is about the fifth largest port of 75 in the state, depending on the metrics you look at.

Bellingham had the seventh-highest budget, and the fourth-largest number of employees in 2014, according to data submitted to the Washington Public Ports Association.

Bellingham’s director’s salary was 13th, behind large ports such as Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Grays Harbor, Longview, and Everett, as well as several smaller ports including Walla Walla, Anacortes, Kennewick, Edmonds, Olympia and Port Angeles.

“A lot of other ports also have deputy directors that make about $100,000,” Robbins said. “Here we’re starting this big project on the waterfront, and (Fix) has a background in management, along with accounting, along with being an executive. We’re getting three in one.”

As of 2013, the most recent year of complete data available on the state’s Office of Financial Management database, other top-paid public employees in the area include Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, $290,511; Whatcom Community College President Katherine Hiyane-Brown, $192,101; and Bellingham Technical College President Patricia McKeown, $168,860. The database numbers include total earnings reported for the year, including base pay and items such as travel reimbursement, but do not include pensions or health care benefits.

McAuley said he didn’t think it was appropriate to compare the port director salary with other government types.

“When you’re looking at city council or county council pay wages, I think it’s appropriate to look at other similar industries,” McAuley said. “Ports pay higher. ... If you look at the highest paid public employee in the county, it’s the president of a university.

“Rather than just governments, you need to look at ports and the experience necessary to run a port,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s relevant. It can inform the conversation if you can say these are the pay scales people are offering out here. .... But essentially this is the bump in pay we should have offered Charlie Sheldon in the first place.”

As director, Fix has redistributed responsibilities among some port employees, eliminating a full-time communications director position in the process and saving the port money through a variety of program changes, McAuley said.

“Time will tell, but it looks like all the things we need to manage are being managed well, even with the changes,” he said. “This salary follows the position, so in the future if Rob wants to go in a different direction, we’ve got the salary now.”

The commissioners said they expected future pay raises for the position would follow cost of living adjustment rates.

Fix, who remained quiet during Tuesday’s decision, said in an interview that he appreciated the raise.

“It’s very awkward for me to talk about my pay publicly in the paper, but I’m very appreciative,” Fix said. “When you’re in the public sector you recognize this is part of the gig. I think even post-me leaving you’ll have to have a salary commensurate with the responsibilities, and if you look at the historical level here, it’s been quite a bit short for like ports.”

Clarifying information was added to the paragraph about top-paid local higher education positions.