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What they earn: Salaries of Whatcom County employees

What is the FOIA?

This video outlines the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which since 1967 has provided the public the right to request access to records from public agencies. The Herald compiled employee salary info using records requested from Whatcom County.
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This video outlines the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which since 1967 has provided the public the right to request access to records from public agencies. The Herald compiled employee salary info using records requested from Whatcom County.

Prosecutor Dave McEachran was Whatcom County’s highest-paid employee in 2018 at $168,901, earning about $270 more than County Executive Jack Louws.

McEachran, who retired in December after nearly 47 years at the Prosecutor’s Office, was succeeded in the November election by Eric Richey, the second-highest ranking criminal prosecutor, who earned $136,667 in 2018.

Louws is retiring this year at the end of his second four-year term as the county’s top elected official — its head of state, so to speak.

“Public service provides a good, reasonable and solid wage for those who invest the time,” Louws said in an interview. “We pay people as well as we can. We expect a lot from those folks and we think they’re doing a good job.”

As county executive, Louws attends government meetings, meets with county residents, appoints local residents to government advisory panels, supervises administrative officials and has veto power over County Council actions under some conditions.

“Yesterday, I started my day at 7 — I had meetings in Point Roberts — and I got home at 9:30 at night,” he said. “Not every day is like that, but it’s a full-time job.”

County Council members earned $31,243 last year, a rate set by the Whatcom County Commission on Salaries. They’ll get $31,867 this year.

The Bellingham Herald requested information about county workers’ and elected officials’ compensation through the state’s Public Records Act, a 1972 ballot initiative that gives Washington residents the right to see how their government works.

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For perspective, median household income for Whatcom County residents was $56,419 in 2017 dollars for the years 2013-2017, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

Judges, court officials and sheriff’s officers follow McEachran and Louws in 2018 annual earnings among all county employees, along with department heads in areas such as parks and recreation, health and public works.

Judicial pay is set by the Washington Citizens Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials.

Whatcom County now has about 850 employees, down from 900 before the 2008 recession but more than the post-recession low of 800 workers, Louws said.

“We’re asking a lot more of our employees now than we were then,” he said. “Times are changing. Even an entry-level position requires being able to navigate technology and be self-sufficient right off the bat.”

Some county workers’ salaries are set by law, some by union contract, and the numbers cited in the county database are for payroll only and don’t include benefits, Louws said.

Total Whatcom County payroll expenses were $62.3 million in 2018, said Karen Goens, the Human Resources Department manager, citing figures from the Finance Department.

That’s up from a pre-recession payroll of $37.8 million in 2003, and a post-recession figure of $52.4 million in 2013.

Goens, who is paid $125,642 annually, said about 80 percent of Whatcom County employees are represented by one of six collective-bargaining units.

“We’re like 25 different companies,” Goens said, noting that the county provides a broad range of services, from administrative tasks to running elections, collecting taxes, fixing roads and enforcing the law in unincorporated Whatcom County.

“We need to attract folks who have a lot of horsepower,” she said in an interview.

Salaries are based on those in comparable Washington state counties, usually an average of three that are larger than Whatcom County and three that are smaller.

“For comparing wages, we generally look at how our positions align with the same positions of like counties,” Goens said in an email. “We collect the job descriptions from each of the six comparable counties that closely match our job descriptions, gather the associated salary information, and determine how we are aligned. If it looks like our positions are underpaid by at least 3% in four of the six counties, then we would look at realignment. The counties we have been using are Cowlitz, Skagit, Benton, Yakima, Kitsap and Thurston.”

Wage tables are available online, along with job descriptions and collective bargaining agreements, Goens said.

Some workers’ salaries are fairly straightforward, such as that of a heavy equipment operator who earns $23 an hour or about $48,000 annually at Step 1, and $33 an hour or about $69,000 by Step 15, according to the wage table.

Other workers’ salaries are based on more complicated wage schedules, Goens said, such as a corrections deputy or sheriff’s deputy whose annual earnings could be augmented with overtime and incentive pay for specialized training.

Several sheriff’s deputies are among the county’s top 100 highest-paid employees, earning more than $100,000 annually.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.
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