Park board votes to boost staff salaries

In a sometimes contentious public meeting on Saturday morning, Vashon Park District commissioners approved a plan to increase employee pay over two years to bring it in line with comparable-sized park districts. The decision to do so, which came via a sharply divided 3-1 vote, also ensured that Elaine Ott-Rocheford will remain the executive director of the park district after she received a job offer from another district last week.

By Monday, Scott Harvey, who voted against the measure and chaired Saturday’s meeting, said that an important procedural step had been missed before the vote. The commissioners will vote again on the measure at the next regular board meeting, June 12. The outcome is expected to remain the same.

The only agenda item for Saturday’s meeting was a wage plan that Ott-Rocheford drafted, at the request of board members Karen Gardner and Bob McMahon. It lays out wage increases over the next two years for all park district employees. With the passage of the plan, beginning this month, $50,000 will be apportioned among the 11 staff members’ pay for the next year. Beginning in each of the next two Junes, additional increases of $50,000 will also be allocated in that manner, costing the district, per her calculations, approximately $178,000 in additional wages by 2020.

The plan is based on Ott-Rocheford’s analysis of comparably sized park districts and departments in this region. Her work showed that Vashon Park District pays its employees cumulatively about $150,000 less than the other districts. It also shows that out of 25 agencies, Vashon Park District employees were typically the lowest paid, often by several thousand dollars annually.

Moreover, Ott-Rocheford said that over the last nine months, the district has lost two key staff people over low wages, had great difficulty filling their positions, and additional staff members are looking for better paying jobs because of the high cost of living on Vashon.

“I do not know that I can manage those transitions going forward,” she told the commissioners. “I am deeply fearful of this issue. … It is one of the most critical issues facing the safety of the park district.”

Ott-Rocheford held the floor in the beginning of the meeting, speaking about the challenges of attracting and keeping employees on an expensive island, and about how they had arrived at that point, gathered on a Saturday morning to vote on a wage plan for the district and a job offer on the table for her.

She singled out three board members — Bob McMahon, Abby Antonelis and Karen Gardner — as having shown concern regarding wages, including recommending that a goal be included in the draft strategic plan to create a plan for wages and benefits.

“That is exactly what we need. We need a plan,” she said. “We do not need to meet the objectives overnight. We don’t need to get staff where they need to be overnight. But we need a plan that is responsible, that is respectable to employees and respectable to the financial needs of the district, but ultimately gets people to where they need to be.”

Conversely, she singled out Harvey as having been resistant to that goal. She stated that he has repeatedly made statements about staff salary concerns, such as, “If you do not like it, leave.”

“At face value, that is so incredibly disrespectful to say that to staff members who are struggling to pay their rent,” she told him. “But if that is the solution, that staff members should leave, then where are we? Then we don’t have a district.”

She told the commissioners that she began looking for work several months ago, believing it may be the only option to be well compensated for her skills and work.

Then about three weeks ago Gardner and McMahon came to her, she said, and asked her to put a wage-increase plan together because they felt the problem for the district was so pressing it called for action. They did not know of her job search at the time. That plan was presented at the May 22 meeting, with the suggestion they suspend the rules to vote that night to illustrate to the staff that they take matter seriously. At that time, she said, she shared with them that she was one of four finalists for a new job, and the three agreed to keep that information to themselves.

Harvey objected strongly to the plan at that the May 22 meeting, and they delayed the vote until the next scheduled meeting, June 12, for Harvey and others to evaluate it further.

Ott-Rocheford said she respected that decision, but felt without a staff-wide plan in place, she needed to continue her interview process, ultimately receiving an offer last Thursday morning, with a response needed by 9 a.m. Monday.

After the offer, she requested the weekend meeting, saying that if the board approved the plan, she would turn down the other job. If not, she would move on.

When she concluded her remarks, she noted Harvey had also provided commissioners with his perspective and analysis. McMahon, Antonelis and Gardner all said they still planned to vote for the measure, with Gardner terming it a “moral responsibility” to take care of the people of Vashon to the best of the district’s ability.

“We have to be careful,” she added. “We might not be able to designate $100,000 for recreational programming because we are paying our staff, but so be it.”

McMahon noted that he remained convinced of the plan’s importance. He also said to Ott-Rocheford that the first step in the salary plan would not “make her whole” in terms of her salary.

“I want to be really clear about this,” she responded. “This is not about me. This is about my love for my job, my love for my staff, my love for the district.”

Her job offer, she said, was for $115,000. With a raise, her salary would be short of that, at $103,000.

“I do not want you to match my offer,” she told the board. “I just want a plan.”

After a bit more discussion, Harvey took his turn, speaking critically of Ott-Rocheford, the plan and process.

“If we do not vote on this, you are going to take the other job,” he said to her. “Explain to me how that is not blackmail.”

Ott-Rocheford responded, saying the process is typically called negotiation.

Harvey indicated he would prefer to vote at the June 12 meeting, when more of the public might be in attendance.

He raised a variety of concerns about voting for the plan, referencing the 2016 board survey, saying only two people indicated they wanted staff to be better paid and saying he did not believe Ott-Rocheford told her staff that the board was doing all it could to increase wages.

He noted that park district staff had received 17 percent pay raises in the last three years and that he would support higher wages under other conditions.

“I am all about increasing wages at double the inflation rate or more at the proper time. I might even agree at the proper time, which would be at the end of the year, to increase it to the full $50,000,” he said.

He stated he felt that the salary plan is not responsible — and that he believes that by 2020, this plan will cost the district $220,000 — more than Ott-Rocheford’s estimate.

“This is VES all over again,” he said to quiet groans, referencing the district fields project that had considerable cost-overruns.

He also stressed the district’s backlog of maintenance and added that he believes there are too many financial unknowns ahead for the park district, with the possible creation of a hospital district and uncertainty regarding how much money the fire district will take next year, possibly affecting park district tax revenue.

“If you give somebody something, it is really hard to take it away,” he added.

Discussion continued until Harvey, acting as the chair with Doug Ostrom away, called the vote, cutting off a question from the floor.

Following the meeting, Ott-Rocheford restated she believes the plan is fiscally responsible, indicating she will keep a close eye on finances.

“A good business manager takes a look at things and makes adjustments,” she said. “We are going to look at where adjustments need to be made and make them accordingly.”

Draft documents show that wages will increase between $160 and $585 per month with the adoption of the plan The current average hourly wage of regular staff (eight positions) is $21.36. With the increase this year, that average will rise to $23.38. In 2020, when the plan is complete, Ott-Rocheford estimated that the average hourly wage will be $28.97. Ott-Rocheford said she believes, and hopes, the increase will be sufficient to draw and retain staff.

The next park district meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 12, at Ober Park. The procedural move that was missed was voting to suspend the rules to vote early (before the next scheduled meeting). That procedural vote will not be needed when the vote on the plan is conducted again, as Tuesday’s meeting is the next scheduled meeting. The public is welcome to attend.

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