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Salary comparisons of public agency leaders throughout Columbia County show top earners make $100K+

SPOTLIGHT GRAPHIC: NICOLE THILL-PACHECO - Left to right: Managers John Nguyen of Columbia River PUD, Sarah Hanson, attorney for Columbia County, Scot Stockwell, superintendent of St. Helens School District, Paul Peterson, interim superintendent of Scappoose School District, and Scappoose City Manager Michael Sykes.The median annual salary in Columbia County is about $55,150, while the average salary is $38,807, according to U.S. Census and Department of Labor data, but records show those leading the county's public agencies make, on average, two to three times those amounts.

While most in top positions make wages in line with what other managers in comparable roles throughout Oregon make, a regional salary comparison shows it pays to work for a public agency in Columbia County.

Scappoose School District

Highest Paid Employee: Interim Superintendent Paul Peterson

Annual Salary: $140,000

Year Hired: 2018

Worth noting: The top earner in the Scappoose School District is the chief leader of the district — the superintendent. In order to qualify for the job, applicants must have an Oregon administrative license with a superintendent endorsement, which requires a masters degree and years of experience at an administrative level. The superintendent position also has the most contract days out of all staff at 261. Salary for the position is set by a contract which is approved by the school board. The Scappoose School District's newest interim superintendent, Paul Peterson, is slated to earn $140,000 based on his recently approved contract with the district.

In the 2017-18 school year, former interim superintendent Ron Alley was earning $121,000. The high school principal position is the second highest salaried position at $113,388 working 225 contract days.

Teachers at the top of the pay scale in Scappoose earn $73,126 with 190 days of work on their contracts.

St. Helens School District

Highest Paid Employee: Superintendent Scot Stockwell

Annual Salary: $144,615

Year Hired: 2015

Worth noting: Similar to Scappoose, staff in the St. Helens School District follow a pay scale based on years of experience and salaries vary from position to position. The superintendent salary in St. Helens is determined by pay range, but when Stockwell was first hired he negotiated to have his pay start on the higher side of the scale, rather than have his pay increase dramatically year after year, school board members previously explained. In 2017, Stockwell earned $141,000, and was slated to received a 2 percent pay increase this year. The second highest paid employee is the district's director of special education, Lori Thompson who earns $112,716.

City of St. Helens

Highest Paid Employee: City Administrator John Walsh

Annual salary: $123,072

Year hired: 2012

Worth noting: League of Oregon Cities data from 2018 indicates that Walsh's salary is the among the highest in the state for city administrators according to available data. Salary for city employees is also based on a step scale based on experience. City staff previously reported to the Spotlight that Walsh had maxed out and was at the top of the salary scale bringing in just over $10,000 a month.

The second highest paid position is the St. Helens Police Chief which brings in an annual salary of $111,876, followed by finance director at $106,000. St. Helens city council members earn a monthly stipend of $750, the council president receives $900 and the mayor receives $1,100.

Scappoose Fire District

Highest Paid Employee: Fire Chief Mike Greisen

Annual salary: $118,584

Year hired: 1989

Worth noting: Greisen oversees both Scappoose Fire District and Columbia River Fire and Rescue, through an intergovernmental agreement between the two agencies, which was first entered into in 2016. Greisen remains an employee of SFD, but CRFR pays half of Greisen's annual salary to Scappoose to help cover a portion of the cost.

The second highest paid employee is Scappoose Division Chief Jeff Pricher who earns $112,622 annually. The highest paid firefighters earn $85,890 annually and are eligible for longevity bonuses between 1 and 2 percent starting at 10 years of employment. They are also eligible for certification bonuses if they are trained in topics like swift water rescue, fire truck operation and fire boat operation. The district matches up to 2 percent of pay for union employees and 4 percent for chiefs under a deferred compensation plan.

Columbia 911 Communications District

Highest Paid Employee: Executive Director Mike Fletcher

Annual Salary: $110,000

Year Hired: 2018

Worth noting: Fletcher recently joined the district as the executive director. Information from the district indicates that his salary is determined by his contract, which will be under review during the current fiscal year. The Columbia 911 Communications District pays employees on a step scale based on experience and the pay range varies widely depending on the position itself, whether it is an administrative role or communications role, and whether or not the position is salaried or hourly. Starting salary for communications specialist trainee positions and call taker trainees starts at more than $17 an hour. Pay increases are dependent on the position and the amount of experience. Longevity bonuses are 2.5 percent of base wage stating at 10 years, among other benefits like a paid deferred compensation match of up to 2 percent.

Columbia River Fire and Rescue

Highest Paid Employee: Division Chief Eric Smythe

Annual Salary: $115,260

Year Hired: 2016

Worth noting: An ongoing agreement between CRFR and SFD allows CRFR to not budget for the full cost of a fire chief (see above), but the district has approved a $132,000 salary for a fire chief should the two agencies choose to dissolve the agreement. That logistical arrangement means that division chiefs with CRFR are the top paid employees. Division Chiefs Ian O'Connor and David Coombs follow Smythe closely at $114,240. Beyond base salary, employees also receive PERS, insurance and other benefits.

Columbia River PUD

Highest Paid Employee: General Manager John Nguyen

Annual salary: $210,000

Year hired: 2017; began career with PUD in 1987

Tipping the county's salary scales is the general manager of the Columbia River People's Utility District. The publicly-owned electrical provider has consistently given its top management the highest wages in the county. "Per ORS 261, the Board sets the General Manager salary," Sonia Wendelshafer, human resources manager for the PUD, explained. "Salary data for other comparable utilities was provided to the Board." Data show that while Nguyen may be the highest grossing public employee in Columbia County, his annual pay falls at the low end of a salary scale among other comparable Oregon public utility districts.

Columbia County Sheriff's Office

Highest Paid Employee: County sheriff

Annual salary: $102,290

Year hired: position currently vacant

The sheriff position was held by Jeff Dickerson until Dickerson's recent retirement in June, before the end of his third term. A chief deputy, Steve Salle, was appointed to serve as the acting sheriff until a new person is elected. Sheriffs are elected by voters and serve four-year terms. They are charged with overseeing all operations within the county's Sheriff's Office

City of Scappoose

Highest Paid Employee: City Manager Michael Sykes

Annual salary: $127,200

Year hired: 2014

In 2014, the city of Scappoose hired Michael Sykes, a nearly life long Scappoose resident, as its city manager. Sykes took a pay cut to accept the job, leaving his position as city manager in Forest Grove. Prior to being hired to oversee operations at the city, Sykes also served as a Columbia County commissioner, and a commissioner with the Port of St. Helens. Since taking the helm, he has led the city to focus on economic development, expanded city parks and recreational sites, and focused heavily on obtaining grant funds for various projects.

Scappoose Police Department

Highest Paid Employee: Police Chief Norman Miller

Annual salary: $110,643

Year hired: 2014 Norm Miller was promoted to chief by the Scappoose City Council in 2014, after a tumultuous outgoing of the police department's former chief, Doug Greisen. Greisen was fired in 2014, and later sued the city. Miller oversees roughly a dozen employees in the Scappoose Police Department, and since taking over, has implemented a more "community friendly" approach to policing that includes officers being identified only by first name on their uniforms, and more frequent conversational interactions between officers and local business owners and residents.

Port of St. Helens

Highest Paid Employee: Executive Director Doug Hayes

Annual salary: $120,869

Year hired: 2017

Executive Director Doug Hayes was chosen to oversee the Port of St. Helens in 2017, after the retirement of former executive director, Patrick Trapp. Hayes came with a military background. Since landing in the position, the new director has helped foster prospective business talks with international business developers, while attracting a broad range of companies, including renewable energy producers, for potential new production plants at Port Westward.

Columbia County

Highest Paid Employee: County Attorney Sarah Hanson

Annual salary: About $145,750

Year hired: Unknown

Sarah Hanson, one of two attorneys at the county who serves as on-staff legal counsel, plays a key role in the county, advising the county commissioners on everything from day-to-day compliance issues to complex legal issues. Hanson also has a heavy hand in determining when and why the county commissioners meet in executive session, as well as often dictating which public records get released. Hanson is at the top step of her salary range, which currently caps out at $12,146 per month, according to county salary records.

In contrast, county commissioners, who are elected officials serving four-year terms, make $91,400 a year.

Who are the top wage earners in Columbia County?

At $210,000, the PUD manager makes twice what the county sheriff makes, and more than five times what the average resident in the county earns. See how salaries in other positions stack up.

  1. Columbia River PUD General Manager John Nguyen — $210,000
  2. Columbia County Attorney Sarah Hanson — $145,750
  3. St. Helens School District Superintendent Scot Stockwell — $144,615
  4. Scappoose School District Interim Superintendent Paul Peterson — $140,000
  5. Scappoose City Manager Michael Sykes - $127,200
  6. St. Helens City Administrator John Walsh — $123,072

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