County awaits arbitration decision, effects

Binding arbitration to determine the compensation of employees at the Kitsap County jail seems strange, yet this procedure has been around for almost 40 years.

When the county commissioners and the employees’ union representatives cannot reach agreement after collective bargaining followed by mediation, a panel of three people, acting as a state agency, decides the matter.

One member of the arbitration panel is chosen by the county government and another by the employees’ union.  These two people then choose the third, neutral member of the panel.

In determining what compensation will be, the panel considers among other things the compensation of “like employees of like employers.”

The probable result, then, is compensation for employees at the county jail which is similar to the compensation received in comparable places.

Of course, choosing the other jurisdictions that are to be used as the standards to guide the outcome is itself a matter of contention.  Picking those with higher or lower compensation relative to Kitsap County would clearly influence the result.

In addition to this effort to make everyone’s compensation similar when they work in similar jurisdictions, the state law that imposes this procedure requires the panel to consider “other factors normally considered” in determining compensation.

Naturally, one would hope that the ability of the employer to pay is an important factor, especially when the employer’s revenue has suffered a substantial decline in the past few years.

One might also expect that the ability to hire and retain people with suitable qualifications and temperament to do the job would be a factor that significantly influences the outcome.

What seems strange about this procedure is that it takes the decision out of the hands of the county commissioners who are elected to make decisions based on factors that employers traditionally consider — like ability to pay and avoid the disruption and expense of excessive employee turnover.

If an employer doesn’t pay enough to attract and retain employees, the job doesn’t get done the way it needs to be.

The commissioners obviously know this, so when they determine what the county can afford in light of all its responsibilities and resources it seems odd that their determination isn’t the end of the matter.

Instead of having our elected officials decide, an arbitration panel steps in and tells the county what it must pay.

The commissioners still have a role to play after the panel announces its decision.  They must decide how many employees the county can afford at the compensation set by the panel.

Annual revenue from the county’s sales tax has declined substantially since the “bubble” burst in 2007.  In 2011 it was 16.7 percent, or $4.7 million less than in 2007.

Any employer would be expected to cut costs rather than raise them when faced with such a decline in annual revenue.

But not all employees could be expected to share the employer’s opinion in all situations about the need to hold down costs by stopping or slowing pay increases or even reducing their compensation.

County jail employees cannot lawfully go on strike when there is a disagreement about compensation, but they can reject the county’s offer and seek a better deal through arbitration.

We elect our commissioners and charge them with the responsibility of making decisions about running county government, but not this decision.

It seems strange, because our representative form of government becomes substantially less representative when we don’t get to elect the decision makers.

Of course, if the arbitration panel’s decision causes little or no harm to the overall ability of county government to perform its responsibilities, we can live with the strangeness — as we have for almost 40 years.

The occasional insertion of unelected decision makers into the governing process may be entirely acceptable when the outcome causes no substantial harm.

Under the circumstances created by the collapse of the “bubble” economy, one must wonder whether this occasion will be different.


Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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