Whatcom salary commission grants cost-of-living raises to county leaders

In its final vote, the Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials in Whatcom County decided to give all officeholders under its purview cost-of-living raises in 2016 and 2017.

The commission, at its last meeting on April 16, backed away from a tentative vote two weeks earlier to freeze the inflation adjustment for elected officials in 2016 and only give a 2.2 percent cost-of-living raise in 2017.

The commission decided on a 1 percent adjustment in 2016 for the county assessor, auditor, treasurer, sheriff, executive and seven council members. These positions also will get the 2.2 percent cost-of-living raise in 2017.

“It seems like a tough message to send, that they get zero, if we know that keeping up with inflation would warrant 1 percent,” commissioner Bob Carmichael said at the April 16 meeting. “It just seems a little bit harsh.”

He did not attend the April 1 meeting, when the salary freeze was proposed, but his argument at the commission’s last meeting helped sway the final vote.

Commissioners originally had proposed the 2016 freeze because the first Salary Commission, which convened in 2013, had overestimated inflation in setting cost-of-living raises for 2014 and 2015.

The commission stuck with its April 1 proposal to raise the sheriff’s annual salary another $1,649 for 2016, beyond the increase for inflation, to $132,000. The commission wanted to acknowledge the extra responsibilities held by the sheriff because the position is responsible for the jail, and the county is on an international border, which creates unique law-enforcement challenges. The commission also wanted the sheriff’s pay to be closer to that of the Bellingham police chief, which at the highest step would receive $134,136 in 2015.

The salary of the part-time council was increased $5,048 for 2016, on top of the cost-of-living raise, to $30,000. Commissioners agreed the council was underpaid, given the amount and the importance of their work.

The salary of the one remaining county elected official — the prosecutor — will continue to be tied to that of superior court judges set by the state salary commission.