County has been too generous an employer

As it should be, the Kitsap County budget is a major topic in the campaigns of candidates for county commissioner.

Since 2007, the commissioners have been working to balance the budget without depleting the general fund reserves as revenue has declined from its peak.

There is no end in sight yet.

Revenues have yet to begin growing after the real estate bubble burst and a recession followed.

The process so far has been like a person on a treadmill — briskly walking just to stay in one place.

Each stride was a reduction in projected spending, a diversion of funds from one use to another, or a cut in employee hours or positions.

One other way to avoid falling backwards off the treadmill is to increase taxes and have the extra revenue act as one or more strides, but the commissioners have not yet asked for a tax increase.

Even after revenues begin to rise with the economy — whenever this finally occurs — the treadmill will still be moving.

Think of the treadmill’s speed as the rate of spending increase needed to keep up absent a reduction.

Having been on this treadmill for over three years, incumbent Josh Brown appears to understand the nature of the problem.

His challengers also seem to grasp at least some aspects of it.

When Brown says that the county’s costs as an employer were rising too fast to be sustained with available revenues even before the recession hit, he appears to be right.

Decisions made years ago made the rate of increase in total employee compensation too great to be met by county revenues.

In 1998 the county commissioners substantially increased the medical insurance benefits that are part of total employee compensation.

Once this greater medical insurance benefit was given, it became an expected part of compensation even when the county’s cost to provide it rose faster than revenues.

The share of medical insurance premiums paid by county government has been and still is greater than that paid by the federal and state governments for their civilian employees.

This has to change, if the county is to bring its costs as employer into line with its revenues.

Collective bargaining agreements between the county and employee unions have customarily required a “cost of living adjustment” that can be greater than the rate of inflation.

When inflation disappeared because of the recession, one might expect that the county’s contractual obligation would not include a COLA, but it did.

Obligated to pay more even in the absence of inflation and despite declining revenue, the county had to negotiate modifications to the collective bargaining agreements to balance the budget.

Pay raises that come at regular intervals in an employee’s career can be a good idea, since they tend to retain experienced employees.

If higher productivity comes with experience, more can be done without hiring more people.

But if these “step” increases play a part in causing the county’s total costs as employer to rise faster than revenues, then something has to give.

With an operation the size of county government, the rate of increase in the average cost per employee ought to be near the rate of inflation over the long term — but it hasn’t been and won’t be unless changes are made.

We could all benefit from informed and thoughtful discussion of compensation issues, since this is the biggest part of the county’s general fund budget.

It won’t be easy for the candidates to resist the temptation to descend into demagoguery, and there will likely be some flak coming from the employees themselves.

For county employees, their compensation is an unavoidably personal issue so a dispassionate attitude would be really hard to maintain.

For the commissioner candidates, it’s an important aspect of county business, and we need to know which one can best handle it reasonably and dispassionately.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.