Panel sets higher pay for first agriculture director
Director would earn $114,000, deputy would get $102,600
WAILUKU — After initially setting lower amounts, the Maui County Salary Commission voted Friday to increase annual salaries for the director and deputy director of the new county Department of Agriculture to $114,000 and $102,600, respectively.
“I think this is a great compromise,” said commission Vice Chairman Grant Nakama, who proposed the new amounts after discussion about salaries for the department that will come into existence with the start of the fiscal year July 1, when the new department takes effect.
The amounts are higher than the $90,000 and $70,000 that the commission set in March and lower than the $126,386 and $113,747 recommended by Mayor Michael Victorino to align with salaries of the director and deputy director of the county Department of Transportation, respectively.
The commission on Friday voted 7-1 for approval of the new salary levels, with Commissioner Peter Martin voting no.
At last month’s meeting, a proposal to increase the salaries to the level sought by the mayor failed after receiving support from four commissioners, one short of the five “yes” votes required.
Before the vote Friday, Deputy Managing Director Josiah Nishita said the administration was still recommending the higher salary amounts, which would be equivalent to the lowest salaries for a county director and deputy.
He said the county had received 13 applications for director and seven for deputy director by the deadline, which was Monday.
“We do know of individuals who decided to decline to apply because of the salary,” Nishita said.
While all applications haven’t been reviewed, “on the surface, I know there are unqualified candidates who have applied,” he said.
Asked by Commissioner Edwin Misaki if “on the surface” there were applicants who were qualified, Nishita said he believed “there may be individuals who are qualified, at least meeting the minimum qualifications.”
When Misaki asked if commissioners would be able to know who the qualified applicants are and what their qualifications are, Nishita said, “typically, we don’t release the information of individuals who weren’t selected.”
He said a selection committee of agricultural experts from throughout the county will determine whether applicants have the expertise to run the department.
Interviews of candidates were anticipated to start May 27 so recommendations could be transmitted to the County Council by the first week of June, Nishita said.
He said that if the Salary Commission increased the salaries, the administration would look at reopening recruitment for the positions.
“We will be able to make whatever adjustments is needed based on what the Salary Commission’s recommendations are,” Nishita said.
After the vote last month, the commission asked for information about the salary history for the transportation director, as well as the salaries for positions overseeing county agriculture programs on Kauai and Hawaii island and for extension agents for the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.
The Kauai position, which has a salary range of $62,136 to $91,968, and the Hawaii island position, which has a salary range of $62,136 to $91,968, aren’t for department heads and wouldn’t be responsible for hiring and budget decisions, said David Underwood, county director of personnel services.
An extension agent earns $101,244 a year, according to a letter to the commission from Underwood.
The county transportation director’s salary started at $80,000 in 2003, increasing in increments to $126,386 in 2020, according to information provided by Underwood.
He said the transportation director’s salary was in line with that of other department heads when that department was created.
While commissioners Nakama and Tambara Garrick said they supported increasing the agriculture salaries to the levels sought by the administration, Commissioner Clark Abbott had a different opinion.
“You’ve got to start somewhere and you can’t start somebody at the same salary as somebody who’s been there for 10 years,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
Garrick said the cost of living was “vastly different” than in 2003, and the county was asking for a higher level of experience. “We should get the best person for the job from the get-go,” she said.
“I agree 100 percent,” Abbott said. “But I think starting at a high salary is not the way to go.”
Nakama said the $80,000 salary for the transportation director in 2003 is the equivalent of $125,700 “in today’s money,” which is “almost exactly” the current pay for the transportation director.
“It just goes to show there’s been a lot of inflation since then,” Nakama said.
Abbott responded: “I don’t want to start the horse out of the gate before it’s proved its abilities.”
Nakama proposed the $114,000 salary for the agriculture director as an average of the salaries of the transportation director and an extension agent. He said the $102,600 salary for the deputy would be 10 percent less.
“I feel at a minimum, we need to recruit people who are extension agent-level candidates,” Nakama said. “It would be a step up in responsibilities for that agent.”
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.