Politics & Government

Whatcom County's top pay lagging

In Whatcom County, the county itself remains one of its largest economic engines, though underpaying some behind the wheel.

Whatcom County remains the fourth-largest employer, behind Western Washington University, St. Joseph Hospital and the Bellingham School District. It will pay an estimated $43.7 million in salaries this year.

While many salaries are in line with those in other counties along the Interstate 5 corridor, a public disclosure request by The Bellingham Herald showed the salaries of some top elected officials lag behind.

Salaries for Assessor Keith Willnauer, Auditor Shirley Forslof and Treasurer Barbara Cory will be $76,400 this year, on the low end of officials in other counties, according to an annual salary survey by the Association of Washington Cities. By comparison, the base salary for these positions in Benton County is $82,296.

The officials’ gross pay — including premium pay for extra duties and using personal cars for work — will be $84,000 a year. However, Willnauer, assessor since 1989, said his salary did not keep pace as employees under him received step pay and other realignments.

“It’s very difficult to talk about salaries,” Willnauer said. “Everybody does, but elected officials aren’t supposed to. It is a tenuous position.”

For Cory, the irony is the county’s top staffers could receive better pay working for the city of Bellingham. City Finance Director Therese Holm made $93,393 last year, compared to Cory’s gross pay of $84,000.

Cory believes that disparity will cause some to turn away from holding county elected offices. While saying she’s proud to have served as the county’s elected treasurer since 1988, she said salaries remain low for some county officials.

“We want to be treated like other employees in the county — no more, no less,” Cory said. “That hasn’t happened.”

While positions are named the same across counties in the state, the job responsibilities often are very different. For instance, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo is in charge of the county jail and emergency management, which are run by different people in other counties.

Elfo, whose gross pay is $99,084 a year, said he’s proud to serve the county — but admitted if money “was the motivating factor, I wouldn’t be doing this.” As a comparison, Bellingham Police Chief Randy Carroll made $106,716 last year, with no jail to run.

“When you look at the police chief and the number of people you’re in charge of, it is significantly less,” Elfo said. Elfo manages about 195 employees while Carroll has 163.

During last year’s review of the county charter, officials suggested forming a citizen salary commission to determine how top elected officials should be paid. In their minds, the committee could resemble the state’s salary commission, which sets pay for the governor down to district court judges. The state salary commission sets the pay for Whatcom County’s three Superior Court judges, who make more than any other county employee.

Having citizens set salaries removes elected officials from the delicate political position of asking for more money.

“It gets so much media attention,” Cory said. “Everyone gets so nervous about the discussion.”

Currently, top elected officials can request a salary review if their pay drops below 5 percent of a group of peer counties, which includes Benton, Cowlitz, Kitsap, Skagit, Thurston and Yakima, said Karen Goens, the county’s human resources manager. Those salary adjustments later go before the Whatcom County Council for consideration.

Laurie Caskey-Schreiber, chairwoman of the Whatcom County Council, said the current system allows voters to hold the council accountable, rather than a faceless commission. She also pointed to the fact nearly all salaries in Whatcom County are low. Her own salary as a part-time councilwoman is $16,500 a year, the lowest for any county commissioner or council member in the state.

“We are a trapped labor pool,” she said. “Across the board Whatcom County salaries have always been lower than the counties south of us. It’s not fair, but it is what it is.”