Timing of pay hikes for top city officials outrageous

The local economy has not yet recovered from the Great Recession and city government remains financially pinched.

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The city of Walla Walla -- like every local government in Washington state (and maybe the nation) -- has had to watch every dime as the Great Recession has eroded its tax revenue. City services have been reduced as many employees have seen their wages frozen and others have been laid off.

Yet, the city's top managers were granted an across-the-board 7.1 percent pay raise this year. The police chief, fire chief and support services director saw their salaries increase to over $125,000 year while the Parks Department director saw an increase to over $113,000 a year. Pay raises were also given in 2010 for these positions and those at the mid-management level.

The pay increases are outrageous under these circumstances.

That's not meant as a judgment on the work being done by these key department heads nor on whether their new compensation is equitable.

The outrage is the incredibly lousy timing.

By allowing these pay raises to be implemented, City Manager Nabiel Shawa and the City Council have created an unnecessary political controversy.

The reasoning offered for these hefty pay raises centers on the city's effort to restructure its pay scale to reflect the "cost of labor" -- looking at what competitors are paying employees who perform similar services in similar markets. A study, that was completed in 2009, found the majority of city employees who were annually making $60,000 or more were paid less than the median average of those in similar positions.

The city's ultimate goal was to pay wages that are competitive enough to attract and retain talented people for the city's management positions.

It's a laudable goal.

And we have no problem with city officials' decision to commission a study, but when the national economy went into a tailspin -- taking Walla Walla with it -- officials should have put the brakes on implementing the study's recommendaitons.

After all, was hiring and retaining key employees in the midst of the Great Recession an overwhelming problem?

Unlikely. The job market had changed quickly by the end of 2009. City officials should have changed their approach to reflect the new reality.

Ironically, they did make some changes as they took action to hold down wages for city workers as money had to be trimmed from the city budget so expenses matched revenue.

Unfortunately, by boosting the management salaries officials have put the city in a bad light politically. Any cries for more funding for streets or any other project are going to be looked at with, at the minimum, raised eyebrows.

City officials should not have authorized even modest raises -- certainly not 7.1 percent raises -- until the economic situation had stabilized.

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