What they earn: These workers are among the city of Bellingham’s highest-paid

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Bellingham’s 10 highest-paid city employees in 2018 were police officers and firefighters — mostly those with seniority, supervisory duties and special skills who worked significant amounts of overtime, publicly available payroll records show.

Mayor Kelli Linville was the 12th-highest paid city employee in 2018 with base pay of $151,656 annually and “other pay” of $6,000, according to 2018 earnings records obtained by The Bellingham Herald.

By salary alone, however, Linville is the highest-paid city official under the city charter, which says “the mayor’s salary should at no time be less than that of the highest paid city official or employee” and city code that says “the annual salary for the mayor shall be five percent above the highest salary level of department head positions.”

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

In an interview, Linville said that good pay and benefits attract quality employees.

“Public satisfaction is our No. 1 priority,” Linville said. “If we don’t have well-trained and well-paid employees, we don’t sustain the level of services our people expect.”

Officials look to comparable cites

She said that city department heads are paid about 90% of what they’d expect to earn in a comparable job at a similar city, such as Yakima, Auburn, Everett or Olympia.

Linville is in the last year of her second four-year term as mayor and isn’t running for re-election this year.

Yakima has an appointed city manager instead of a mayor for day-to-day administrative operations, and Cliff Moore earns $87.54 an hour, or $182,083 annually, according to the city of Yakima.

Related: Search 2018 City of Bellingham salaries

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Olympia City Manager Steve Hall earns $182,559, according to a searchable database created by The Olympian newspaper.

Bellingham City Council members’ annual salary was $26,308 and increases to $27,132 this year, said Brian Heinrich, the city’s deputy administrator.

City Council members in Olympia earn $20,862 annually and Mayor Cheryl Selby is paid $25,035, according to The Olympian’s database.

Earnings and demographics

Total 2018 salaries and wages for all Bellingham employees was $69,198,716, with benefits of $28,992,995, according to an email from Vanessa Blackburn, the city’s communications director.

In Bellingham, a “skilled worker 1” in the Public Works Department earned a base salary of $53,981, a human resources senior analyst in the Human Resources Department earned a base salary of $63,958, and an exhibits assistant at the Whatcom Museum earned a base salary of $43,161.

For perspective, median household income was $47,886 for Bellingham residents in 2017 dollars over the years 2013-2017, according to the latest U.S. Census data.

Bellingham had a population of 89,045 in 2017.

Median price of homes sold in Whatcom County was $382,800 in 2018, a 12.2 percent annual increase, according to a Herald report in January.

Average apartment rent for Whatcom county in fall 2018 was $985 a month, according to the Runstad Department of Real Estate at the University of Washington.

Bellingham among top employers

Bellingham has 893 total employees, with some seasonal and part-time positions, Linville said.

The city was seventh among the top 10 employers in Whatcom County, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.

Nine bargaining units or unions represent 815 city employees, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Police Guild and the Teamsters.

Ranking personnel in the fire and police departments — including sergeants, lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs — were most of the top 25 highest-paid Bellingham employees in 2018, in addition to the heads of the Public Works and Planning and Community Development departments.

High overtime ‘not unusual’

In some cases, those uniformed workers earned a third or more of their base pay in overtime.

“I’m not surprised,” said Candice Bock, government relations director of the Association of Washington Cities in Olympia.

“It’s not unusual,” Bock said in an interview. “Overtime and specialty pay can be compounded and add up. Utility workers, too. Big storms come through and there’s a lot of overtime.”

Herb garden.jpg
A Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department employee hammers decorative flowers on posts into place in the herb garden behind the Whatcom Museum of History and Art in 2002. Mayor Kelli Linville said that good pay and benefits attract quality employees to the city. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Battalion Chief Charles Henkel, a 30-year veteran firefighter, was the highest-paid city employee in 2018, earning $177,910, including overtime and other pay — slightly more than Gov. Jay Inslee’s base pay of $177,107, a figure set by a state panel.

Henkel’s base pay was $113,220 in 2018 — for his two 24-hour shifts each week — but he earned $37,274 in overtime and $27,416 in “other pay.”

Pay bump for special skills

“Other pay” is a salary bump that includes a length of service premium and incentive pay for special skills, such as being a police dog handler, a member of the fireboat crew, or a paramedic, according to the salary data and police and fire officials.

“The idea of ‘other’ pay is to compensate them for that special skill set,” said Police Chief David Doll.

Interim Fire Chief Bill Hewett said the department spent more money than usual on overtime last year because of a rash of injuries and a workforce that includes senior staff who have more annual vacation than firefighters with less time on the job.

“We’re hoping that we’ll see a dramatic decrease in the amount of overtime this year” through recent hiring and other measures, Hewett said in an interview. “Some of it is unavoidable. The majority of it is to fill vacant seats due to vacations and injury.”

Firefighter injuries forced high overtime

Hewett said that minimum daily staffing is 32 “seats” on the engines, ambulances and ladder truck for the city’s six fire stations. That includes a battalion chief and an EMS captain who work the same 47 1/2-hour week as firefighters — 24 hours on, 48 hours off, 24 hours on, and 96 hours off, with an extra work day about every 10 weeks.

That means firefighters, paramedics, captains and battalion chiefs work almost 48 hours a week before they earn overtime.

For major incidents, such as the fire at Hohl Feed and Seed, off-duty firefighters are called to staff stations and handle concurrent alarms.

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Both Hewett and Police Chief David Doll said that — unlike an office worker — even a sprained ankle or broken finger can sideline a police officer or firefighter.

“A relatively minor injury can take them out of the game,” Hewett said. “While they can come to work and do light duty, we still have to fill a spot on the engine.”

Hewett said that Bellingham Fire’s daily crew complement runs lean, with only three people — a captain, driver and firefighter — staffing an engine and an ambulance at their assigned stations.

In contrast, the National Fire Protection Administration, a trade group that promotes fire prevention and sets standards for building codes and protective gear, said a minimum of four firefighters should staff a fire engine.

Odd hours, high-stress jobs

Starting pay of $84,000 to $83,000 annually for Bellingham police officers and firefighters is below 90 percent of the national average for their jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Doll said that police officers and firefighters work odd hours, nights, weekends and holidays.

Bellingham police officers work either four 10-hour days with three days off, or a rotating shift of five 10-hour and 40-minute days and four days off, with a fifth day off after the third weekly rotation, Doll said.

“This is a stressful job,” Doll said in an interview. “(The schedule) allows them time to decompress” and provides off-duty hours for training.

“It’s a difficult job. It requires an individual who’s selfless,” Doll said. “We’re under constant scrutiny — and we should be. We don’t just deal with criminal elements. We deal a lot with people who are in crisis.”

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.