Edmonds Mayor: Let’s look at facts when discussing labor costs

To the editor:

There have been several articles in the newspaper recently concerning the wages paid to public employees. Some have quoted the Wall Street Journal. Some have mentioned the City of Edmonds employees and the upcoming negotiation process for our four unions. While allegations and comments continue to be bandied about, it seems like a good idea to supply some facts and not conjecture regarding compensation for the City’s employees.

It’s been said that because 50 percent of the City’s current budget is staffing/payroll-related, that we should cut back and/or do layoffs. The nature of city government dictates that we provide services that require employees. The City of Edmonds has long-standing policy of not filling vacancies unless they are critical to the work that must be done. Anyone who wanders through City Hall can see the vacant office space as a testimonial to staffing vacancies. While positions have gone unfilled, we continue to ask employees to work harder and smarter and to make up the difference. The employees have stepped up to the challenge and have done what needs to be done.

On the subject of staffing, it is important to note that the City of Edmonds has approximately 205 full-time staff (after the departure of 54 Fire Department employees).  If you compare our staff size to other cities of similar population (after a reduction for their fire employees), you’ll see that Redmond has 500 employees, Kirkland and Lynnwood each have 400, Puyallup has 315, and Marysville has 257. It becomes apparent that our City operates as lean as possible while maintaining many of the same services as other cities.

The level of compensation for our 205 employees is simple and straightforward. Union employees participate in a negotiation process every three years, at which time we update working conditions and, in some cases, update compensation packages to remain competitive. Much work goes into data collection prior to negotiation to determine what the surrounding comparable cities pay and determine the appropriate place in the market for our jobs. All benefits are looked at and are put in a total cost of compensation model so that we have a comprehensive view of what we offer employees. It is City Council policy to pay at the median of the marketplace. In other words, we don’t pay at the top because those costs would be prohibitive, and we don’t pay at the bottom because it then becomes impossible to retain the employee base that is imperative to maintaining service levels. It is important to point out that our median is the top of the employee’s pay scale, which means that the median is only reached when an employee has worked the required number of years needed to reach the top of their scale. Once the top is reached, they are paid at the median of the surrounding cities; for all employees who have not reached the top, they are paid below the median.

The City of Edmonds saw a reduction in revenues in 2000 and began cutting costs including travel, training and supplies. This was followed by layoffs in 2002. Since then, we have held a hard line on hiring and compensation, maintaining our position at the median. In addition, in 2009, in an employee/employer effort to keep all City services in place for our citizens, our Teamsters, SEIU, and non-represented employees took nine unpaid furlough days. The savings from those furlough days was upwards of $400,000.  On top of those savings, our 35 non-union employees, who make up the managers and director level staff, had wages frozen in 2009 and are receiving minimal, if any, increases in 2010.

After serving as mayor for 10-plus years, it is clear to me that new, non-tax revenues are needed to allow your government to continue to offer the services that you expect. Reducing the number of employees will cut those services. The upcoming labor negotiations will certainly be a reflection on the state of our economy, and I expect both labor and management to work diligently to find workable, fair, common ground. And I would expect that like all labor contracts negotiated over the past 12 years, it will take well into 2011 before we have resolution to the contracts.

I would especially hope that the councilmembers who eventually approve all labor contracts will do their best not to do their negotiating in the press and instead spend more time trying to find some economic development opportunities that will raise our revenue streams so that we don’t have to rely on taxing our citizens.

While it is easy to make assumptions and generalities about City employee salaries, the facts tell a different story. I am not lobbying for pay increases or making a case that City employees should be paid more for their work. I do know, however, that Edmonds City employees are a hard-working group that has created salary savings, takes pride in their work, and continues to provide the best service possible to the citizens of Edmonds. The Wall Street Journal seldom reports those facts.

Mayor Gary Haakenson

  1. I have never questioned the competence and dilligence of city employees. But they are not unique! Yes there are fewer employees when compared to some other comparably sized cities, but they all work the same number of hours each week.

    My message is that in the severe economic environment of the past couple of years it was imprudent to have given employees a 5.8% pay increase in 2009 and to be careful with pay increases going forward.

    City employees should not be treated better than the taxpayers who pay their salaries.

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