Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey's chief of staff and special assistant earn a combined $189,817 a year. Each position received $20,000 raises since Carey took office last October.
"They are paid a professional wage," Carey said in an interview Thursday. "Those professional wages are relatively constant, even with the poor economy. I think these are absolutely appropriate."
Other significant raises were given to the solid waste director, who received a more than $18,000 raise; the Donald E. Gilman River Center manager, a more than $13,000 raise; finance director, a more than $9,000 raise; controller, a just over $10,000 raise; and the human resources specialist, a nearly $10,000 raise.
Carey said he rewrote the special assistant's job description to include monitoring the eight service areas within the borough.
"I want to provide much more attention and coordination with my office and those service areas," he said. "It is a very different position."
The extra responsibilities warrant a pay increase, he said.
The chief of staff, like the special assistant, has the corresponding salary compared to the job.
Should anything happen to Carey that would keep him from conducting his mayoral duties, the chief of staff has the authority and responsibility to take over as head of the administration, Carey said.
"He is the single most important person in the administration after the mayor," he added.
The river center was previously under the planning department but has since been made its own department, Carey said. It has the responsibility of 25 streams throughout the borough and is involved with Seward's flooding issues.
Since the Cook Inlet Beluga Whales were listed on the endangered species list, the river center, too, has been involved with that issue. Because of the increased responsibilities of the river center manager, the pay raise is fitting, Carey said.
The issue of certain borough employee's salaries was brought forth during the Oct. 13 Assembly meeting. The governing body was discussing a resolution that outlined job descriptions for about 50 borough positions.
During that discussion, Assemblyman Bill Smith proposed moving the special assistant to the mayor from a level 7 -- the highest level -- to a level 6. The minimum salary for a level 7 position is $79,590 and the maximum is $111,426. Only three positions within the borough are level 7, the chief of staff, borough attorney and finance director.
Former Assembly President Milli Martin, who's final meeting was Oct. 13, said she was unaware of the dramatic wage increases. She said she felt mislead by the administration.
Carey said he was open about paying his top staff more during the budget cycle.
"Everything in terms of salaries is public knowledge. There's nothing to hide," he said. "This is all public money."
Assemblyman Hal Smalley did question the raises prior to finalizing last year's budget; however, firm numbers were not provided to the assembly, said current Assembly President Pete Sprague. The budget was approved without those figures.
"There's definitely some lessons learned for the next budget cycle," Sprague said.
Carey did provide the data during Tuesday's committee meetings after Sprague requested the information during the Oct. 13 meeting.
The committee meeting was non-confrontational, Sprague said. All of Carey's pay increases were legal, he added.
The assembly approves budget amounts for each department as lump sums. The mayor delegates specific job wages.
"You also get what you pay for," Carey said. If individuals are hired for less-than-professional salaries, it shouldn't be a shock if their quality of work and competence is less than what is hoped for and needed, he said.
In the months leading up to approval of the budget, Carey championed giving taxpayers some reprieve. He submitted a budget funding education about $3 million less than the cap, the maximum amount local government can contribute to the school district's budget as per state statute. Carey, too, proposed reducing the property tax levy by .5 mills.
The mayor's budget also called for significant decreases in non-departmental funding. The non-departmental category of the borough's budget is comprised of non-profit organizations, such as the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, Central Area Rural Transit System, Small Business Development Center and Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council.
Despite his recommendations, the assembly fully funded education, did not lower the mill rate and gave every non-departmental most, if not all, of the money each requested.
"We funded all of those," Carey said. "Everyone got everything and we're still $2 million over," he said referring to the borough's fund balance.
The borough currently has $25 million in its fund balance, $2 million over the high end of the suggested range. The preferred amount in the fund balance is between $18 million and $23 million, Carey said.
Reducing taxes is the correct way to decrease the fund balance, Carey said.
Should the mill rate reduction have passed, it would have equated to $3.3 million less in tax revenue. Though some employees have received raises, it's not anywhere near $3 million, Carey said.
Because of the huge difference, the issue of reducing the burden on taxpayers and raising salaries is incomparable, Carey said.
Mike Nesper can be reached at email@example.com.
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