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Raises considered despite tough times

By Nancy Cook Lauer; West Hawaii Today; January 19, 2017

West Hawaii Today

HILO — Top-to-bottom raises are being considered for county officials and employees, despite a hiring freeze as fixed costs for retirees take a bigger chunk out of the county budget.

State-level negotiations with unions covering police, fire, white-collar professionals and blue-collar employees are in the works as contracts for the four major unions expire this year.

Meanwhile, the county Salary Commission plans to meet Friday to consider raises for the top officials not covered by unions. The top officials last had raises in 2014.

“Of course, everyone’s looking for some sort of raise,” said Salary Commission Chairwoman Pudding Lassiter, adding the commission, with three new members, will have to do a lot of homework before deciding whether raises are warranted.

Approximately 2,600 of the county’s 190,000 people work for county government. About 57 percent of the county’s operating budget is devoted to their pay and benefits.

About 10 percent of the county budget is earmarked to pay off bond debt, money that was previously borrowed to pay for capital projects. Net funded bond debt currently stands at $411.3 million, according to a Dec. 12 report to the County Council.

Another 10 percent will likely go toward post-retirement medical care and other benefits for county retirees. County officials have been meeting with state Employee Retirement System officials as the state tries to shift more of the burden to counties.

All this means county budget-crunchers must take at least 77 percent of the budget off the top for fixed costs before even considering where else to allocate money. The mayor is required by the county charter to release a preliminary budget in early March.

Last year’s budget was $462.9 million, a 5.5 percent increase over the prior year.

“With all that’s going on, we have to be very cautious of the costs,” county Managing Director Wil Okabe said Wednesday.

Especially with a mayor who doesn’t want to raise taxes.

“This is no time to consider — even remotely consider — tax increases to the people of this island,” Mayor Harry Kim said in an interview Monday.

Kim had instituted a “soft” hiring freeze shortly after taking office, until he could get a handle on new hiring practices instituted by the previous administration. That means the county is hiring only as absolutely necessary to maintain services.

Members of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers in 2013 received about 16 percent increases in raises over five years. Hawaii Fire Fighters Association members received 18 percent during collective bargaining and arbitration at the state level.

Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers union members are also up for new contracts this year.

“There are lots of moving parts to this upcoming budget and we are still in the preliminary process of accumulating and reviewing all of this data,” Finance Director Collins Tomei said Tuesday in an email message.

Under the Salary Commission, top county officials in 2014 got raises from 5 percent to 21 percent, bringing the mayor’s salary to $132,000; County Council members to $52,008; council chairman to $58,008, and most department heads to $99,000.

The Hawaii County charter gives the Salary Commission the responsibility to set salaries of top officials in the county. They have no jurisdiction over union members. Salaries set by the commission cannot be changed by the County Council or the mayor.

The Salary Commission meeting is open to the public, who can testify at the beginning of the meeting. The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday in the council chambers in Hilo.

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