Camas mayor on salary study uncertainty: ‘Longer this goes on … worse it is for our city’

Officials closer to agreement on salary range revamps, will discuss issue at Oct. 2 meeting

It has been almost one year since Camas leaders commissioned an independent review of city employee salaries and city councilors are expected to come to a resolution regarding retroactive salary increases for non-represented employees in early October.

But some officials — including Camas Mayor Scott Higgins — believe the process has dragged on too long.

“I believe the longer this goes without resolution, the worse this is for our city,” Higgins said at a Camas City Council work session in early September. “For our employees, this has been hard … and if we could have been done by now, it would (have been) better.”

Higgins added that this is the first time in 20 years the city has gone through such an exhaustive review of city employee salaries, and said he did believe city councilors were close to agreeing on revamped salary ranges for the city’s union and non-represented employees.

City administrators are using the independent salary review, presented to the city council in July by consultants HR Answers, as a “starting point” for current collective bargaining negotiations with Camas’ union-represented employees, but city councilors have debated the study’s updated salary ranges for non-union employees.

In July, Camas City Administrator Pete Capell told council members that city staff has been “very clear with the collective bargaining groups” that the report was to be considered a starting point for negotiations and not something that would be set in stone when it came to determining salary schedules.

The initial report included current salary benchmarks for 68 city of Camas positions, with recommendations for increasing or decreasing those benchmarks based on the consultant’s research of similar positions and wages in other cities and library systems.

The report shows the city’s recommendations regarding pay scales, which often did not match with the suggestions posed by HR Answers. In fact, some of the salary study rates were very different — for example, while the city’s recommendations for a “Grounds Worker I” position show a slight decrease from the city’s current pay scale, going from $4,047 a month at the lowest pay step to $3,728 and from $4,830 at the highest pay step to $4,465, the consultant’s recommendations would decrease the position’s pay scale even more drastically, reducing the lowest pay scale by $1,111 a month and the highest by $1,314.

Likewise, some of the recommended pay scale increases are much different: While the city’s recommended salary increases for Camas’ “information technology director” would bump that position’s salary up by $598 on the low end and $741 on the high end, the consultants recommended increasing the position’s pay scale by $2,659 on the low end and $3,211 on the high end, bringing the position’s monthly pay in line with the city’s finance director, at $9,697 at the first step and $11,616 at the highest step.

Capell said the recommendations were simply a tool for bargaining with union reps, but councilors were still concerned about the consultants’ recommendations for non-union employees. Many believed the HR Answers consultants had gone too far, including private positions and delving into a broader geographical area than some city councilors expected.

To alleviate their concerns, city staff looked at employee salary ranges in four cities that, according to Capell, “fell closest in population and sales tax … including Battleground, because it was local and similar in size (to Camas).”

On Sept. 5, Capell told city councilors that this more narrow survey had come quite close to the ranges and figures shown in the HR Answers salary review.

“By and large, (the new study conducted by city staff) validated the results that came out of the HR Answers study, with just a couple of positions adjusted by one grade,” Capell said.

In July, city councilors agreed to give the city’s non-represented employees an across-the-board salary increase of 2 percent instead of using the figures listed in the HR Answers study.

If councilors accept the changes to the study by Oct. 3, the city will be able to make that 2-percent salary increase retroactive to Aug. 1, for non-represented employees. The councilors will discuss the issue at their upcoming city council meeting on Monday, Oct. 2.

Although some councilors worry that the process has gone on too long and caused damage to employee morale, others were concerned about rushing a full revamping of city employee salary ranges after two decades of the status quo.

“A 20-year absence of having a salary study is too long,” said Councilwoman Bonnie Carter. “There will probably be pains as we bring this to staff.”

Some noted that, despite most city leaders’ desire to pay competitive wages and attract and retain the best employees, the city council members — and the public — need to consider the ramifications of salary increases.

Councilwoman Shannon Turk said salary increases can be tricky considering that the city is limited to 1-percent increases in property taxes under current state law, and is operating in a structural deficit. She also noted that health care costs are expected to go up 6 percent.

“So, if salary is the most important thing, we have to mitigate,” Turk said. “We, as a council, have to find the money somewhere … it may impact our ability to add staff if we increase (salaries) by 4 percent.”

Higgins agreed that the structural deficit, combined with the 20-year gap between salary studies complicated the issue.

“We haven’t done this effort in over 20 years and that’s a big mistake,” Higgins said. “It’s made this more confusing, challenging than it should have been … but lessons have been learned. And lesson No. 1 is: Do not ever, anybody on this body now or in the future, let it go this long again.”