Salary Commission weighs pay hikes, other incentives to keep top officials

Mayor Harry Kim and Finance Director Deanna Sako address the Salary Commission on Thursday. (Nancy Cook Lauer/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — The county Salary Commission is considering bonuses as one way to attract quality candidates to head county departments.

Just don’t call them bonuses. Call them lump sum payments, suggested Finance Director Deanna Sako. Or, suggested Commissioner Judy Greenbaum, call them salary inversion catch-up payments. Or, as Commissioner Florence Ikeda called them, incentives.


Whatever they’re called, the goal would be to give department directors and deputies a little extra so they would be making more than their highest-paid subordinate. That amount would be in addition to an average 2.25% salary increase being contemplated by the commission.

The officials, including the mayor, County Council, prosecuting attorney, department heads and deputies, last received raises in 2017, when they saw increases of $16,700 to $42,900, or 13.2% to 39.7%.

On the table for the top officials are raises of about $5,600 for each position, a 3.4% to 7.5% increase. The mayor, for example, would see his pay rise to $168,223 annually; the County Council chairman would be paid $82,657 and a council member would get $75,649.

The commission took no action at its meeting Thursday, instead asking for better data on what comparable private-sector jobs pay on the Big Island. Information provided by county staff to date included statewide averages from the Hawaii Employers Council, showing what Commissioner James Higgins called, “big city” salaries.

The commission had asked Mayor Harry Kim to come to the meeting to tell them whether the county could afford raises. Kim didn’t answer that question directly, saying it’s the Salary Commission’s job to set salaries. Salary Commission members are nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the County Council.

“Can we afford it? We have to. We have to make the decision where the money comes from,” Kim said. “I have never spoken to the Salary Commission on pay. … No matter what we say, the public does not understand the employees at the administrative level. None of us on the administrative level has one iota of say on what we get paid.”

Salary inversion is a big deal to the commission, which had approved the big raises in 2017 to make sure all the appointed bosses made more than their civil service subordinates. But as union wages continue to increase, management pay is slipping behind again in comparison, in what Higgins called a “constant push from below raising wages.”

“Certainly people at the time (of workforce unionization 50 years ago) didn’t know our budget would be busting at the seams and figuring out what new tax we can raise,” Higgins said. “What we have is a fantastic symbiotic relationship between the ruling class and those would endorse them.”

Kim had opposed collective bargaining and arbitration increases of about 2% plus bonuses this year. But he defended the unions’ power to negotiate.

“The union grew because of the need for the union to be there, because of the way people were treated,” Kim said. “Because we did not take care of our employees, the unions were formed.”

Commission Chairman George Campbell said the commission needs to deal with its responsibilities and not let top management pay fall too far behind.

“We have positions that are already in the inversion mode. … Sometimes we feel like we’re pushed to provide some kind of raises just because we see the continued growth from the union side,” Campbell said. “On the other hand, I think it’s appropriate that managers are paid essentially what they’re worth.”

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