Park board member resigns over wage plan

Scott Harvey abruptly resigned as commissioner and vice chair of the Vashon Park District at the board meeting on Tuesday, June 12, citing a plan to raise employee salaries as misguided and reckless, one that will ultimately create a financial shortfall at the district.

His resignation follows his critical remarks at the meeting on May 22, where a vote on the wage increase was postponed, and later a special meeting called on June 2 by Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford, who was entertaining a more competitive job offer at the time but said she would remain at the Vashon Park District if the staff-wide plan was adopted.

Due to a procedural misstep, the final vote on the wage increase plan was delayed to June 12. At the meeting, Harvey called the board to order and called the vote on the wage plan before reading from a prepared statement.

“Tonight, I lost all hope when the board voted to ignore the wishes of the island and make a fiscally irresponsible commitment to the park district staff,” he said.

After outlining the rest of his case for resigning from the board — among his points, that they ignored the results of the 2016 survey, prioritized the wage increase over recreation programming after representing that they would not do so, and dissolved a recently approved vacant maintenance worker position to support the cumulative wage increases — Harvey promptly left the room.

With commissioner and Chair Doug Ostrom not yet returned from a weeks-long break and Abby Antonelis away on business, the board did not have a full quorum to make a valid motion on remaining agenda items, and instead hosted a discussion about the wage issue with members of the solemn audience.

The wage increase was passed 3-1 with Harvey casting the only vote against, and a proxy vote submitted by Antonelis beforehand.

Asked about the precedent for submitting a vote via proxy, Ott-Rocheford said that while no policy states that a proxy vote is acceptable, she determined based on the district’s model for parliamentary procedure, in accordance with The Open Public Meetings Act, that it was proper.

According to Ott-Rocheford, analysis of industry standards have confirmed a total difference of $150,000 between annual cumulative wages paid to the Vashon Park District staff versus similar agencies in communities of the island’s relative size and population. Seeking to close this industry average wage shortfall, Ott-Rocheford shared fiscal projections at the May 22 board meeting, estimating the park district’s operations budget for 2018 through 2022, given preliminary salary increases for all personnel.

As had been discussed among the board in the past, at that meeting Ott-Rocheford touched upon the difficulty of staff recruitment at all employment levels in the park district, as well as how the rising cost of living on Vashon has posed too great a burden on staff who have recently resigned.

But Harvey doubted the integrity of the projections and argued that sharing them other than at the end of the year, when the board formally prepares its budget, was premature.

“First thing, doing this in the middle of a budget year is totally uncalled for,” he said in a telephone conversation. “I mean, there wasn’t any emergency, there wasn’t any dire thing happening involved here. We could’ve handled this very easily at our next budget cycle.”

Ott-Rocheford, however, has maintained that time was indeed of the essence.

“It was a whirlwind, this issue, just really screaming loud and clear that this is a problem,” she said, adding that she had learned of an employee withdrawing their candidacy for a new job after the wage resolution was passed, and of another who put their application aside, deciding to stay at the Vashon Park District. “Attracting employees, recruiting and maintaining staff, it just really pointed to a growing concern about my ability to manage these transitions, as I knew employees were looking elsewhere.”

Treasurer Bob McMahon and board member Karen Gardner had asked Ott-Rocheford to prepare the initial financial projections for the May 22 meeting, suggesting suspending the normal rules to vote on the wage increase that night.

“There are some of us who believe we have a moral responsibility that we pay as much as we can to staff so that they can make a living wage,” said Gardner at the meeting.

Harvey believes that the process the board undertook to pass the wage increase resolution was “incredibly rushed.” In his statement, he also took issue with the conjecture that his opposition to the wage plan was unjust.

“One of my fellow board members stated we had a ‘moral responsibility’ to vote for this wage increase. That implies that to oppose such a motion might be immoral,” he said. “I have my own opinion on what truly is immoral. More to the point, what is irresponsible.”

Harvey added that a spreadsheet he later drafted and shared with the board shows the park district’s operating and permanent reserves near depletion by 2024 with the acceptance of the wage increase plan.

“My whole point is that the whole situation is founded on poor numbers,” he said.

On his insistence that the board pressed ahead despite few comments from islanders about concern for park district wages in the 2016 survey, Ott-Rocheford did not take the argument lightly, saying that little reaction to the subject was elicited because the survey never asked about staff wages.

“If a question of that nature was asked on the survey, I think that taxpayer response in favor or against would certainly help guide the board in their decision making,” she said.

After Harvey left the June 12 meeting, Ott-Rocheford assured audience members that great care and responsibility was being taken as part of the wage increase consideration, even going so far as to say that “by 2022, we could have $1 million bucks in the bank.”

“I need to be very clear, in doing projections you have to make a certain set of assumptions,” she said, adding that she found in two different sets of her own analyses that the park district could fund the wage increases along with a full suite of recreation programming in the future.

“Both [scenarios] did not assume any deferred maintenance, but my point was to show we can still do deferred maintenance down the line. I just wanted to show how much the levy dollars were going to be increasing, just with those two objectives met — wage increases and recreation programming,” said Ott-Rocheford, whose calculations were based on estimates of Vashon property value increases over the next two years.

The park district has more than $4 million in deferred maintenance work consisting of asset preservation and improvement projects; with possible grants, the district’s total contribution needed to complete the deferred maintenance would be about $1.5 million.

Harvey said that Ott- Rocheford’s calculations are shortsighted because they do not account for the possibility of the fire district raising its levy, or for the creation of a hospital district.

“Her final iteration is based upon the fact that we will pass a 50 cents per $1,000 levy next year. That’s what she’s betting on,” said Harvey, alleging that islanders will have to pay more in property taxes so the park district can give itself a raise. “It made no sense to me.”

Ott-Rocheford said that her levy projections made sense as the park district has asked for 50 cents per $1,000 in its recent levy elections.

Harvey said he believes that current employee benefits more than compensate for comparatively lower pay, stressing the importance of the basic income stream needed to sustain wage increases in keeping with other park districts.

“I believe that the park district has been stepping up, and will continue to step up, but it’s just a matter of economics, and I don’t think its relevant at all what anybody else makes — it’s what we can afford,” he said after the May 22 meeting. “Unlike so many other places, you only have so much money in the pot, and we don’t. Therefore it’s just not good economic sense what has been proposed.”

But Ott-Rocheford, emphasizing that she followed the financial management policy “to the letter of the law,” holds that the right choices were made by the commissioners who put the wage increase forward.

“I feel [the wage issue] was addressed courageously and taken seriously, so yes, that’s a huge relief,” she said. “I just really feel relieved going forward to be operating on a wage increase plan that people are really satisfied with.”

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