WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County commissioners opened discussion Monday of setting elected officials’ salaries for 2015, noting that any increases may be a tough sell to voters.
Commissioners Jim Johnson, Greg Tompkins and Perry Dozier took no action on the issue, but agreed to continue the discussion next week. Any action on elected officials’ salaries must be taken before May 12, when filing week begins for this year’s general election.
Salaries for elected officials
County commissioners — $68,851 for all three positions (salaries frozen through 2016)
Assessor — $72,982
Auditor — $72,982
Clerk — $72,982
Treasurer — $72,982
Coroner — $58,386
Sheriff — $97,124
Prosecuting Attorney — $52,771*
*Represents county’s share of Prosecuting Attorney’s salary. Remainder is paid by state which in 2013 was $74,416, for a total salary of $127,187.
County Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner told commissioners that based on research done by county Auditor Karen Martin, elected officials would like to request a 2 percent raise, which is halfway between the 1 to 3 percent raise allowed by the current contract the county has with the union representing courthouse employees.
Commissioners said District Court Judge John Knowlton has also requested an increase in the salary of the part-time District Court judge from 20 percent of the full-time judge’s salary to 25 percent. They also noted that Prosecuting Attorney James Nagle and Sheriff John Turner have not requested increases.
Commissioners resolved in 2011 to freeze their salaries through 2016. The salary for the District 3 seat can be changed this year because that position is up for re-election. However, in Walla Walla County the commissioners have traditionally had to set their pay up to two years in advance to avoid having a disparity in pay between board members.
“Philosophically,” Johnson said, “I have absolutely no problem at looking at reasonable (pay) raise schedule over a period of years.” Johnson, who took office in 2013, said that in his time on the board he has learned elected officials carry a high burden of responsibility.
“Essentially we have a population of 60,000 that we answer to and, as you all know, they have a wide variety of opinions on how we all should do our jobs,” he said. “The public has every right to access us and let us know about the job we’re doing, but it carries a burden that has to be taken into consideration when we talk about salaries for elected officials.”
However, Johnson went on to say that officials would have to make it clear to taxpayers why an increase was needed.
“We have to get our operating money from the public, and so when we go out to the public and say, ‘We need money for raises for our elected officials, including commissioners,’ we had better have a darn good story,” he said.
County Coroner Richard Greenwood also addressed the board, asking that the coroner’s position be paid the same as other elected officials. At present, the position is paid 80 percent of what the auditor, assessor, county clerk and treasurer earn.
“My reasons are simple,” Greenwood said. “It is a full-time job. For instance, Easter weekend we spent processing two suicides. Heck of a way to spend an Easter. We annually will do approximately 350 to 365 cases, so just about one a day.”
Greenwood cited how demands on the Coroner’s Office have increased along with the growth of the community’s hospitals, retirement facilities and travelers coming to Walla Walla for medical services. The physical and emotional demands of the job are also high, he said, including dealing with “chaotic, gruesome and undignified scenes.”
“The other thing is we’re finding it harder to keep up with the new standards of the coroner’s office,” Greenwood said. These include gathering genetic information, fingerprints and taking blood and urine samples and storing them “in case somebody ever comes up and says, ‘Hey, I think there was foul play.’ We don’t have the facilities or the man hours for that.”
Andy Porter can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8318.