August 21, 2013 in City

Vestal: Washington Policy Center loves numbers, loathes context

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Did you know our mayor is paid more than the mayor of Mobile, Ala.?

A lot more. The mayor’s salary of $169,000 is nearly twice the salary of the mayor of Mobile.

And, though both mayors make more than most in their communities, our mayor is flying way higher. The difference between his salary and our city’s median household income of $41,466 is 308 percent. The mayor of Mobile is paid a mere 133 percent more than his community’s median of $38,240.

Why Mobile, you might ask? And why compare to the median income? Because that’s one way to achieve a dramatic numerical comparison.

Here’s another: Play with averages. Did you know the mayor makes almost four times the national average salary for mayors?

Dramatic numerical comparison, no?

But would you call it fair?

These kinds of statistical techniques – let’s call it “comparing apples and Mobile” – are the hallmarks of the recent report from the Washington Policy Center, a right-wing think tank that produced a report comparing salaries for firefighters and cops in Spokane to certain other cities. The report, which is stained red from cherry-picking, emphasizes that firefighters and cops here are overpaid.

Which perhaps they are. They’re certainly well-paid, and they’re certainly very well-paid compared to the city’s median income, and you can decide for yourself whether that’s appropriate.

But the Washington Policy Center report goes looking far and wide for its comparisons. If you compared Spokane’s public safety salaries to cities in Washington – as the center’s report does not do – the numerical comparisons would lose their drama. If you cherry-picked some different cities – like Austin, Texas, or any little hamlet in New Jersey – you’d find that some cops and firefighters are actually paid more than our overpaid cops and firefighters.

The center’s three-page report is available at http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/publications/facts/key-facts-about-spokane-public-safety-costs. It includes the following:

• We spend virtually the same proportion of the city budget on fire and police as Boise and Portland: Spokane (52.9 percent), Boise (51.6), Portland (53.4).

• The average employee in the fire department earns a total compensation, including benefits, of $121,910 – in the middle between Boise ($130,060) and Portland ($112,494).

• The average employee in the police department makes $111,723 in total compensation, which is higher than both Boise ($98,134) and Portland ($102,369).

• The average police/fire salary in Spokane is 87 percent above the median household income. The report compares that to three other cities: Stockton, Calif. (35 percent); Fort Wayne, Ind. (2.6 percent); and Mobile.

• In Mobile, cops and firefighters make less than the median household income of $38,240. Which is lower than Spokane’s median income of $41,466, and about 28 percent lower than the national median income.

I’m sure Mobile is a lovely city, and yet it is a long way from Spokane, geographically, culturally and economically. It is a long way from Washington, whose collective bargaining laws have a lot to do with the way that public safety workers are paid, and in particular the difficulties that cities face in trying to win major concessions in contract battles. These constraints cannot be wished away.

According to a statewide salary analysis performed by The Spokesman-Review in June, Spokane’s total compensation per police employee – which it calculated at $105,000 – was lower than Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, Bellevue, Kent and Everett. In a comparison of 11 similarly sized cities around the country, Spokane’s police compensation was third-highest.

Similarly, if you consult Bureau of Labor Statistics figures for nonsupervisory, front-line officer and firefighter positions, what you see is this: Washington salaries for those jobs are among the highest in the country, and in that context, Spokane’s fall behind other metro areas in the state.

Are such comparisons valid? Are they even a minor part of the context – even worth mentioning in an analysis of public safety costs? The Washington Policy Center thinks not.

Mobile, though. That’s the ticket. They pay their mayor $89,000 a year. Our mayor makes a lot more than that. He also makes more than many other mayors, including every single mayor of every single city cited in the Washington Policy Center report.

There is a reason for this – the City Charter ties his salary to the highest city salary, and fire department managers are paid exceedingly well – but for now, let’s stick to numbers and omit context. This is apples and Mobile, after all.

How about the mayor’s team? Many of his top lieutenants got major raises last year, even as the police and fire departments were shrinking. These raises were justified as competitive necessities. But if we’re trying to compete with Mobile, we are definitely overpaying.

Our human resource director, for example, makes $124,000 a year. In Mobile, the same position pays $87,000. Our chief financial officer makes $143,000; Mobile’s executive director of finance makes $114,000. Our communications director makes $87,900; their public affairs coordinator makes $41,000.

The road to Mobile is long and steep and downward. If that’s where the city is headed, everyone should go there together.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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