Tensions boil over in Franklin County on salary increases
The Franklin County prosecutor is getting a raise from county commissioners for the first time in 11 years.
The 2-1 decision sparked a heated argument about salaries for elected officials and exposed continuing tension in the Franklin County Courthouse at the commission’s regular meeting this week.
The commission raised salaries for most elected officials in 2016, but not the prosecutor.
Unlike other officials, the prosecutor works for both the county and the state. Each pays a share of the salary.
The state ties the prosecutor’s pay to what it pays Superior Court judges, who have received regular increases.
Franklin County hasn’t increased its share for its prosecutor since 2008.
The result is Franklin County’s elected prosecutor is paid far less than his peers in Benton, Grant and Yakima counties. All three follow the state’s lead and tie prosecutor salaries to Superior Court judges.
For Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller, that means a 10 percent pay bump to about $191,000 on July 1, according to the state’s salary schedule for judges.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant did not ask to be paid as much as the judges nor his cross-river peer but he asked the commission to unfreeze its share.
Sant’s annual salary was scheduled to rise to $153,622, with the state paying $95,500 and the county paying the same $54,000 it has for 11 years.
The commission agreed to increase it to nearly $164,000 in 2019 and to $171,500 the following year.
Fixing stagnant employee salaries
Sant said he made the request now because Franklin County is raising salaries across the board.
Commissioner Brad Peck defended the countywide raises, saying it fulfills a Great Recession promise to revisit stagnant salaries when its economic health improved.
County employees received 12.5 percent make-up raises and 2 percent cost-of-living adjustments, totaling 14.5 percent bumps.
“Once the county got back on track and evaluated compensation, it seemed like an appropriate time,” Sant said.
Peck and Chair Bob Koch voted to raise Sant’s salary.
Commissioner Clint Didier voted no, saying that such generous raises suggest elected officials are serving themselves rather than the county.
“It really ticks me off when we’re asking for pay raises. People are struggling,” he said.
He got into an intense argument with Sheriff Jim Raymond when he called out the sheriff’s salary as an example.
Didier said the sheriff’s pay was going up 27 percent, citing a spreadsheet produced by the county auditor. Didier indicated it was an annual raise.
However, spreadsheet showed the sheriff’s salary would to reach $128,600 in 2021, about 27 percent more than a decade earlier in 2011
Raymond, who took office in 2015, will actually receive raises totaling 4 percent this year, rising to $122,400 on July 10. By policy, Franklin County pays its sheriff 10 percent more than the commanders who report to him.
Raymond angrily told Didier his numbers were wrong and defended his current salary.
“To ask to be compensated fairly is not an affront to the taxpayers and everyone else,” Raymond said.
Didier insisted the sheriff was getting a double-digit raise though he later acknowledged the increase is over a 10--year period, not one year.
“Everything’s escalating up” he complained.
Salaries at expense of roads
Later, Didier clarified to the Herald that he objects to the cumulative impact of rising salaries, and unequal pay rates among elected officials. He said he’s concerned that salaries are being raised at the expense of road maintenance.
The prosecutor and sheriff both earn more than most non-judicial elected officials in part because the offices require more education and training.
Raymond has nearly four decades of law enforcement experience. Prosecutors must be members in good standing of the Washington State Bar.
Didier praised the prosecutor and sheriff but said their salaries breed resentment among lesser-paid officials.
“I’m all for Shawn Sant. I think he’s an excellent prosecuting attorney. What I don’t like is the division we’re creating in the courthouse,” he said.
Didier was untroubled by the angry tone of the debate.
“I think conflict is the only way to get out of this mess,” he said.
Two days later, the sheriff and prosecutor both said the argument reflects passion for service.
“I love Clint Didier. We’re friends,” Raymond said. “If he was up for election I’d vote for him tomorrow. But I’m not going to sit and let him make these comments.”
Sant said it shows the county’s elected leaders are committed to being wise stewards of taxpayer money.
“It’s good we have people working for the county who care about the budget and expenditures and ensuring we have a system in place to ensure fairness,” he said. “We deserve the scrutiny.”
The argument prompted Didier and Commissioner Brad Peck to offer to cut their own salaries from about $94,000 a year to the minimum set out in state law, $14,900 for a county the size of Franklin.
The commission could vote on the move next week.
A reduced salary probably would not take effect until after the three positions come up for election, in 2020 for Peck and Koch and 2022 for Didier.
Washington law prohibits commissioners from changing their salaries to avoid the appearance of rewarding or punishing political decisions.