Maui County employee wages among the highest in the nation

Viewpoint

Public union leaders are in negotiations with the state for higher wages and benefits while the average Maui County employee makes more than the average nongovernment worker. So, should lawmakers raise taxes on Maui citizens to pay for the salary increases of county workers?

County workers on Maui and, indeed, across Hawaii, make a mean average wage of $61,365 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Even after adjusting for Hawaii’s high cost of living, this ranks as the sixth highest wage in the nation.

In contrast, private sector workers on Maui make an average wage of $45,266 per year, which ranks as the lowest wage in the nation, also adjusted for cost of living.

Should we further tax Maui residents, struggling with high taxes in a state with the highest cost of living, to subsidize salary increases for public employees?

Not all county workers on Maui make record high salaries. Many county workers themselves struggle to afford the highest cost of living in the nation, and county employees deserve reasonable compensation. But some county agencies, such as police and fire departments, have been bringing up the county average wage significantly.

Maui police and firefighters make the highest wages of any Maui County departments at over $80,000 per year on average, not including benefits. This ranks among the highest pay in the nation for police and firefighters. And overtime can easily double these numbers.

Part of the reason Maui County workers receive such high average wages may be because County Council members have been historically excluded from the union negotiations process.

The mayor alone represents the entire County of Maui, and he gets only one vote in the process compared to the state’s four votes.

This means that Maui County, which has to pay all of the costs of the increases for police and fire workers, is only allowed one seat at the table. The Hawaii Legislature has proposed reasonable reforms to bring the state’s votes down to one, and to include more transparency in the negotiations process.

In addition, Gov. David Ige has proposed giving public employees moderate pay raises of 1 percent while paying off Hawaii’s debt for public pensions and health benefits. The governor’s budget may help set aside money for hard times in the future while ensuring that public retirees have money waiting for them when they retire.

It is in the best interest of all Hawaii citizens to provide salary, health care and pension benefits that are affordable for both state workers and taxpayers. Instead of dramatically increasing public worker benefits, perhaps the state should work to bring its employees’ total compensation more in line with what the private sector can afford. This will ensure a healthy economy, a balanced budget and a debt-free future for our keiki.

* Keli’i Akina, Ph.D., is president/CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a public policy think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, free markets and limited, accountable government.

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