North Slope Borough leaders see salaries jump 12 to 19 percent; say pay hikes were overdue

Kyle Hopkins

The North Slope Borough mayor and at least 10 other borough leaders are each receiving salary increases ranging from $18,286 to $26,736 a year, according to the 2014-2015 borough spending plan.

Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower is scheduled to receive a boost of $23,946 this year, raising her annual salary by 12.1 percent to $222,474, not including benefits. Department heads and directors appointed by the mayor also will see paychecks uncrease up to 19 percent, according to a budget approved March 28 by the Borough Assembly.

Borough officials say raises were long overdue for the public leaders. Director and mayor's office salaries have not increased at pace with other borough employees who began seeing automatic wage boosts in 2010, said Finance Director Rob Elkins. Brower told Assembly members she sought higher pay for department heads in order to attract key employees who could make more money working for other agencies and corporations in the oil-rich North Slope region.

“I first encountered this issue while assembling my administration, and found that the inability to provide a competitive salary actually prevented some from accepting a position within my administration,” Brower said, according to a transcript. Brower is running for re-election in October.  

The North Slope Borough serves seven villages and the city of Barrow, with about 9,700 residents spread across an Arctic municipality the size of Minnesota. Unlike other rural boroughs, the Barrow-based government provides services normally handled by individual governments or other agencies, such as water service, power and a village-based police force.

The new budget took effect in July. Assembly member Doreen Lampe said one or more members had questioned the pay increases before approving the spending. The extra pay seemed unreasonable to her at first, Lampe said.

“We had questioned that. Especially one of our village Assembly members,” she said.

Borough officials told the Assembly the increases were behind schedule and necessary to raise director salaries compared to non-appointee employees within the borough.

“After the presentation was given, it seemed that for the amount of work that they do, that it was reasonable,” said Lampe, who voted for the budget.

Lampe said Assembly members were not provided with comparative salaries of directors working for other Alaska boroughs. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s salary as chief executive for the state’s largest city is decided by a five-member Salaries and Emoluments Commission. He currently makes $132,498 a year, or about $90,000 less than the new pay for the North Slope Borough mayor. 

Borough Assembly member John Hopson Jr., representing the villages of Wainwright and Atqasuk, said at a March 28 meeting that he did not support the spending plan.

“I have this concern about having no jobs in the communities. I cannot support this budget until we can come to an agreement on this otherwise my vote is no,” he said, according to borough records.

The Assembly approved the budget 4-1, with Hopson voting against it and two members not present, according to meeting records. The spending plan includes the following wage increases compared to last year, according to borough spending summaries posted online:

Borough mayor:

Old salary: $198,528
New salary: $222,474
Increase: $23,946 (12.1 percent)

Chief administrative officer:

Old salary: 179,847
New salary: 202,248
Increase: $22,401 (12.5 percent)

Director of administration and finance:

Old salary: $146,814
New salary: $165,100
Increase: $18,286 (12.5 percent)

Borough attorney:

Old salary: $163,127
New salary: $184,824
Increase: $21,697 (13.3 percent)

Director of planning:

Old salary: $112,732
New salary: $134,113
Increase: $21,381 (19 percent)

Director of human resources:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $166,389
Increase: $25,474 (18.1 percent)

Director of health and social services:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $166,390
Increase: $25,475 (18.1 percent)

Director of wildlife management:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $166,390
Increase: $25,475 (18.1 percent)

Chief of police:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $167,651
Increase: $26,736 (19 percent)

Fire chief:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $167,661
Increase: $26,736 (19 percent)

Director of search and rescue:

Old salary: $140,915
New salary: $166,389
Increase: $25,474 (18.1 percent)

Director of public works:

Old salary: $163,127
New salary: $183,444
Increase: $20,317 (12.5 percent)

Scattered between the Arctic Circle and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, North Slope communities can only be reached by plane. Housing is scarce and living expenses are among the highest in Alaska. The Department of Defense ranks Barrow as one of the most costliest places to live in Alaska, equal to Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue, according to the state Labor Department.

“A gallon of milk is running us $10, $11 a gallon,” said Elkins, the finance director.

Buoyed by revenue from the largest oil field in the United States, the borough likely has one of the largest local-government spending plans per capita in the country. Elkins said the pay increases for directors were based not on the person holding the job but on making the salaries attractive to top candidates and commensurate with other borough employees.

“Some years the directors have gotten no raises. Other years they have been given just that cost of living adjustment, if it was given to all staff,” he said.

The borough budget does not list how much individual employees earn in benefits and total compensation. Alaska Dispatch News on Wednesday asked for a tally of how much each department head has made in the past five years, as a point of comparison to the recent increases. 

An adviser to the mayor on Friday said the information would not be available by press time. 

“We trust your story will not cast a negative light on our rural mostly Inupiat communities and will also include money from the budget that was used on health care, science, education, public safety, community events, housing, and our infrastructure investments in Deadhorse,” wrote D.J. Fauske, an Anchorage-based adviser to Brower. “The Mayor stands by her pay increases to her hard working directors and village assistants and is proud of their commitment and dedication to the people of the North Slope. She also commends the Assembly for passing the budget.” 

Brower narrowly defeated former five-time Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak in a 2011 run-off election. Ahmaogak filed in July to compete for the office again this year, according to the Division of Elections. 

Brower told Assembly members that the $378.7 million borough budget included more money for village utility services, Ilisagvik College and a $750,000 increase in school spending. There is more money to hire firefighters and police officers and fuel subsidies to reduce villagers' heating bills, she says.

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