January 12, 2012 in City

Verner preceded her exit with request for back pay

Seeks $140,000 or a boost to her retirement benefits
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Verner
(Full-size photo)

Verner on taking less pay

• 2007: In an interview prior to taking office, she said she would earn “substantially more” than when she was executive director of Upper Columbia United Tribes – the job she left to become mayor. “I am doing just fine on what I am making right now,” she said when she still was earning her salary with the tribal organization.

• 2009: Verner said she didn’t stress her pay concession to city employees. “I just don’t think it’s fair for me to highlight that. That’s my personal decision. I do think it’s incumbent to establish leadership from the top and to show that it’s important to the executives that we work our way through this.”

• 2011: “I have to set an example from the top to cut back so that other people can keep their jobs and deliver services.”

In her final days as Spokane’s mayor, Mary Verner decided that she wanted a raise.

After voluntarily capping her annual pay at about $100,000 for four years – and pledging to do the same in a second term if re-elected – Verner changed her mind after losing the November election and issued a formal request Dec. 29 for about $140,000 in uncollected back pay from the final two years of her term. If that wasn’t possible, Verner requested that her retirement benefits be calculated as if she had earned the full mayoral salary of about $170,000 a year.

“I submitted the requests when I faced the prospect of being unable to support my family and provide medical insurance after having given up almost $300,000 over the last four years,” Verner, who was out of town this week, said in an email responding to questions from The Spokesman-Review. “I received no payout of weeks of unused vacation or sick leave, and my income was coming to an abrupt end.”

Verner said that since submitting the request she has “received job offers that will alleviate the financial pressure for me and my family” and that if the city agrees to issue her the back pay she’s now open to reconsidering “whether or not I will accept any money.”

Under the City Charter, only the city administrator is allowed to earn more than the mayor. That means that the mayor is supposed to earn a salary equal or greater than the next highest-paid city official, which is usually the police chief or fire chief.

Despite that provision, Verner and her predecessor, Dennis Hession, voluntarily held their salaries below the mandated amount.

Soon after winning the mayor’s office in 2007, Verner said her salary would be held at $100,000 – a much greater concession than Hession made – noting that it was substantially more than she earned in her previous job. In the months that followed, the economy crashed and the decision became a symbol of the sacrifices being made to help balance the budget.

“I have to set an example from the top to cut back so that other people can keep their jobs and deliver services,” Verner said in an interview last year. During her re-election campaign she pledged she would continue to cap her salary as long as the economy continued to struggle.

The 2012 city budget that Verner proposed and the City Council approved did not set aside money for Verner to earn back pay. That means that the City Council would have to approve an emergency budget ordinance, which would require a supermajority vote.

Asked where the city would come up with the money, Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said: “It would simply add to the deficit that we otherwise would be grappling with.”

The issue is under review by the City Attorney’s office.

City Attorney Howard Delaney declined to comment on Verner’s specific requests, but he said the city’s legal department has issued opinions about the topic of declining pay at least since the administration of former Mayor Jim West and that “our advice has been consistent all the way along.”

In October 2005, West issued an executive order to lower his salary by $25,000. But the order only went into effect on Dec. 1, 2005 – the same month he was recalled from office. Hession held his salary to $139,000 when a boost in Fire Chief Bobby Williams’ annual pay would have otherwise required Hession’s salary to increase. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city has no record of Hession requesting back pay and that he was not issued pay to make up for what he voluntarily gave up during his term.

On Dec. 29, three days before Verner’s term ended, the outgoing mayor wrote two letters to other administrators. One was sent to Accounting Director Pam Dolan requesting that “the city pay me the full salary mandated by the charter not previously received by me for the last two years.”

The other was sent to Delaney requesting that her retirement be calculated as if she had earned the full amount.

City employees’ retirement is based on their final two years of work.

Her pension, which she will begin collecting this year, has been calculated based on her $100,000 rate of pay. She is set to earn about $1,400 a month. Had her pay been $170,000, she would earn nearly $2,400 a month in pension.

Retirement Director Leo Griffin said benefits are calculated on the true earnings a person received in a given year.

“There’s no precedent that I’m aware of for paying someone a pension based on a ‘what if’ salary,” Griffin said. “We apply the rules and that’s what we did with her pension.”

Administrators in the past several years had concerns related to mayors declining pay because of the City Charter, and concern about how declining pay might affect the mayors’ taxes and pensions. But Verner held steady that her pay should be kept at the $100,000 level.

Mayor David Condon, who agreed to hold his salary to whatever Verner budgeted for 2012 but hasn’t made any salary pledges beyond that, said he is aware of Verner’s request.

“I have not been briefed on what the legal interpretation is,” Condon said. “I’ll reserve any comment until I go through the process.”

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