Salary Commission approves new rules to slow down raise-setting process

HILO — Slow and steady is the name of the game for the county Salary Commission, which on Thursday revised its rules and received updates on collective bargaining agreements, private sector pay scales and county finances, but took no action on salaries for top management.

The commission, charged with setting salaries for some 40 department directors, deputies, council members and the mayor, is now under new rules after unanimously approving changes complying with a charter amendment requiring more public notice.

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No members of the public testified at a public hearing on the rules held just prior to the meeting. The rules require a public hearing and a waiting period before new salaries are implemented.

More than 80 percent of those voting on a 2018 charter amendment wanted more disclosure about salary hikes granted by the commission, which has the final word on officials’ pay.

The charter amendment, sponsored by Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, came after the commission in late 2017 awarded eye-popping double-digit raises that topped 38 percent in one case. The commission, which approved the raises the same day they were disclosed to the public, justified the increases as necessary because it had been years — and in some cases a decade — since the last raises for officials, while rank-and-file workers received regular raises because of collective bargaining.

The commission learned Thursday that union workers, and some 70 to 80 middle managers whose pay automatically tracks with union increases, have been getting annual 2 percent raises plus lump sum payments. Top officials in two other counties are seeing 3 percent raises this year after action by their salary commissions, said Human Resources Director Bill Brilhante.

Brilhante said contracts are up this June for two of the state’s four public-worker unions, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association and Hawaii Government Employees Association, which covers white-collar workers.

Negotiations for both unions have reached an impasse and are now subject to binding arbitration. If one county or city council rejects the arbitrator’s order, the whole process goes back to square one, he said.

Brilhante said no local government has rejected a collective bargaining or arbitrator’s ruling, but Kauai came close last year with a 4-3 vote to accept the agreement. Collective bargaining is done statewide, with each county getting one vote and the state getting three.

Private-sector salaries for top executives remain higher than those in government, which Brilhante doesn’t find surprising.

“There’s nobody working in the county that comes close to what comparable positions make in the private sector,” Brilhante said, suggesting government employees might have other motivations to work in public service.

Several commissioners seemed to favor a conservative approach after learning the share of the county budget going for salaries, wages and benefits has grown from 50 percent 10 years ago to 63 percent now.

“We’re all taxpayers here,” said commissioner James Higgins. “I would have a really hard time of getting on this treadmill of salary increases, benefit increases.”

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Department of Finance director Deanna Sako said the increases come not from additional employees, but from state-mandated increases in the county’s contribution to the state retirement fund, along with increases in retirement medical benefits and the salaries themselves.

The commission plans to hear from commission officials who have hiring authority over directors, starting next meeting with the Police, Fire and Liquor commissions.

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