Survey says: County on wrong wage track

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Another salary survey, another guarantee of mass disappointment.

No matter who's on Kootenai County's Board of Commissioners, the resistance to inflict pain seems irresistible. They keep paying somebody big bucks to do comparative compensation surveys that always show Kootenai County's employees are underpaid, and then seem surprised when a lot of people are upset.

In its most recent salary and benefit survey, commissioners were told that county employees, on average, make 19 percent less than the workers they were compared against in other areas. Just two years ago, a similar study by BDPA found county employees 16 percent behind their peers in Idaho, Washington and Montana. (Even then, about 140 Kootenai County employees were found to be paid more than the maximum market value for their jobs.) After that survey, Commissioners Dan Green, Jai Nelson and Todd Tondee implemented wage and benefit boosts to address some of the perceived shortcomings.

These studies are nothing new for Kootenai County government. In 2005 the Hay Group was paid $60,000 by the county and, no surprises here, discovered that employees were comparatively underpaid. That wasn't enough. Just three years after the 2005 study, they paid another $15,000 for another salary survey. Going through all the salary surveys dating back to 1992, Press archives show that most of the time, pay and benefits weren't increased as a result of those surveys. That's an exceptional way to kick employee morale right where it hurts.

In these scenarios, a lot of somebodies are always going to get the shaft. Tell employees how underpaid they appear to be, and guess what? You've got an army of unhappy soldiers. Even when employees get raises, are they big enough? Are they fair? Who might be getting more?

If commissioners can somehow meet employees' higher expectations, they have the rest of their constituency to worry about. And today that should be of great concern. Commissioners are actually considering an overall 8 percent pay raise that would cost $2.6 million in the coming year, most or all of it almost certain to be funded by increasing your property taxes. And these aren't one-time investments. The thing about raises is that they immediately become a permanent part of the budget, so a $2.6 million tax increase is more like an additional $13 million hit to county property taxpayers over the next five years - assuming no other raises are given in that time.

Commissioner Green's voice is the only one of reason at this juncture. So far, he alone has the fortitude to say the county not only doesn't have the money for raises up to 8 percent, but that he's adamantly opposed to raising taxes to fulfill salary survey-driven dreams.

These wage comparisons are ill-conceived, benefitting only the companies that do them. Hire well, treat employees with respect and reward them based on performance and you'll have a happy, productive workforce that doesn't give a damn what some guy in Spokane or Missoula is making.

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