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Three of the five highest-spending lobbying groups in Olympia during the first quarter of 2014 were labor unions, including three that represent employees paid with tax dollars.
After signing a new union contract earlier this month, Okanogan County Public Utility District commissioners have opted not to approve new salary ranges for non-union employees this year. Utility commissioners considered a resolution Monday that would have changed the potential range of salaries within the employee compensation program based on the current market value of those jobs. The new contract with Local 77 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, approved April 7, carries with it a $185,000 budget adjustment, but the resolution proposed Monday would not have resulted in immediate raises for those non-union positions. “Underscore, it does not equate to wage increases to individual employees,” General Manager John Grubich said at the start of the discussion. Raises are based on performance evaluations and merit, Grubich said, noting that the review is typically done every year to ensure the utility is up to date and doesn’t suffer “sticker shock” when industry salaries increase. “As we evaluate each individual employee and their contribution to the organization, we also take a look and say, what is the market telling us that position is?” he said. Commissioner Ernest Bolz moved to approve the resolution with the caveat that the employee compensation program should be reviewed every other year in the future, rather than annually to save on consulting fees. His motion died for lack of a second. “I like every other year, but I just don’t feel this year is the year to be doing it,” Commissioner David Womack said, adding that the lower end of the salary ranges has been going up every year. The resolution outlined salary ranges for 31 positions, from technicians, engineers and assistants to finance department employees, several managers and three directors – in accounting, engineering and power resources. There are 45 non-union employees and 47 who belong to a collective bargaining unit, Grubich said in an interview. Proposed salaries ranged from a minimum of $38,692 and a maximum of $55,805 for a Grade 7 employee, to a minimum $117,417 and a maximum $180,218 for a Grade 20 director, according to the draft resolution. After reviewing salary ranges over the past three years, Bolz said, “My concern is, looking at that, only one of those – and that was for the Grade 20 – came anywhere within the range for the union steps over the same period, and the others exceeded that considerably. “I’m wondering if we’re pushing up the bottom of the ranges faster than we need to for the economy and for what labor contracts have been negotiated, etc.” “I’m surprised that those outweigh the union contracts because the last six years, linemen had been averaging 3 percent a year, and … the market tends to go up and down,” Grubich said. “If one of those employees gets hired away, they get a big pay raise to go to work for somebody else.” He used the utility’s recent search for a new engineer as an example – a position that drew candidates who were paid above the proposed mid-point salary being considered, Grubich said. “There’s little use in trying to attract someone like that if we’re not going to pay that type of wage,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s the Pacific Northwest market, it’s not the Okanogan County market. That’s the utility industry.” “I see your point about an engineer; you’re competing in the Northwest market,” board Chairman Steve Houston said, noting that the proposed salary ranges for some lower-paid positions were about 15 percent higher than in 2011. “But grades 7-14, or even 7-10 – that’s a local market, and I don’t think any of my ratepayers that I’ve talked to have seen even double digits in that same time frame, let alone 18, 17, 16 percent.” Grubich said utility employees have not seen double-digit wage increases over that time. Houston also spoke out during the April 7 meeting against approving the budget adjustment for unionized employees’ compensation increases. According to the meeting minutes, Houston said, “at this time … he would rather find the funding somewhere else in the budget over the next few months, even if it is taken from the capital improvements.” On the other hand, Womack and Bolz said they understood during the budget process late last year that wage increases were not included, so an amendment would be needed once a union agreement was reached. They voted in favor of the agreement, while Houston voted against it. The previous agreement expired March 31, and the new one is in effect through March 31, 2017.