Most coastal residents agree that electrical utility workers who restore our lights in extremely hazardous conditions belong in a select group of occupations that truly deserve really good pay.

Cops, firefighters, teachers and coastguardsmen are some others who do dangerous and/or particularly meritorious tasks and who should make top dollar - but rarely do.

News last week that the Pacific County Public Utility District is implementing 9 percent raises for many employees over a matter of a few months raised eyebrows not because they are undeserved - they may deserve every penny. Who among us would step up to do these jobs for almost any sum of money?

Even so, the timing of these PUD raises is deeply regrettable. As our story noted, it comes at the same time as a 4 percent electric rate hike. Although forced by an increase in the wholesale price of power purchased by PUD from the Bonneville Power Administration, many economically stressed consumers will perceive their rates going up to give other people bigger paychecks.

Beyond this unfortunate coincidence, the fact is that wages and salaries for those employed by utilities bear little relationship to the relative importance of other occupations, or to what other people make in our county and state.

According to the state of Washington's most recent wage survey, utility workers are at the very top of the pay-pole, averaging $2,083 a week during the first quarter of 2009, which was an astounding 23.8 percent more than the average they made a year earlier.

In contrast, the average weekly wage for everyone in Pacific County was $535 in the first quarter of 2009, which was an increase of one-tenth of one percent from a year earlier - a grand total of an extra $1 a week. Our county's overall average wages were 37th out of 39.

Comparing last year's average utility worker's wage of $2,083 to other occupations, cops and firefighters and other government workers made $949 a week statewide. People employed in educational services averaged $635 a week. A typical Coast Guard E-3 seaman makes about $444 a week. Fishermen and loggers made an average of $468 a year ago, which was 1.7 percent less than they made two years ago. Our state's many restaurant and lodging workers average $315.

What all this suggests, beyond the fact that life is often unfair, is that utilities are operating in a sort of insulated pay bubble. Not just rank-and-file utility wage-earners but managers also occupy the upper reaches of pay scales. There seems to be an ingrained industry assumption that they operate by different standards - a higher wattage? - than everyone else.

This may be beyond the power of any local PUD commission to fix by itself, but our PUD commissioners, managers and union should endeavor to look outside their bubble and consider how their choices are perceived in an under-privileged county. We all genuinely appreciate our good PUD and its employees. But right now, raises on top of more raises are not a wise idea in a "public" utility district.

PUD board meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month in the auditorium at the Willapa Operations Center in Raymond and the third Tuesday of each month in the auditorium at the Peninsula Operations Center in Long Beach. They are open to the public and start at 1 p.m.

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