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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

The longer he stays, the bigger West’s checks

OLYMPIA – Six weeks after stunning public allegations of child molestation and sexual misconduct, Spokane Mayor Jim West remains in office, fighting a recall attempt and rebuffing repeated calls to resign.

His lawyer says staying in office gives West the best platform to defend himself. Close acquaintances say the mayor – who’s acknowledged “poor judgment” in his private life and bringing “shame” on the city – believes he can weather the scandal.

But others – in City Hall, the state capital, and in letters to the editor – point to another factor that may well be playing into West’s decision to try and ride out the storm.

The money.

Every month West remains in office means another $11,000 in salary. It also increases the size of his retirement checks from both Spokane and Olympia, where he was a longtime state legislator.

“I think he’s staying because of the money,” said City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers. “Yeah, if I was making three times what I was making in my previous job, that would be incentive to stay. But you have to think of what’s best for the city of Spokane.”

“I absolutely think it’s a really big part of the reason he’s trying to stay in office,” said Rita Amunrud, a Spokane woman who’s part of a West recall effort called Citizens for Integrity in Government. “Most people would just be wanting to crawl under a rock.”

In an interview Friday, West said his pension has nothing to do with his determination to hold onto office. “I don’t even know what my retirement is,” he said.

The Spokesman-Review reported in May that two men accused West of molesting them in the 1970s, when they were boys. The newspaper also reported that the mayor offered gifts and city positions to young men he was seeking to date through a chat site.

West has flatly denied any wrongdoing with any child, as well as any misuse of his office.

He said Friday that he’s staying in office because “there’s lots of work left to be done.

“I got elected to do a job, and we’re doing it,” West said.

Five years ago, during his first, unsuccessful run for the office, a citizen watchdog accused him of wanting to be mayor simply for the salary and pension. “That’s just flat nonsense,” West said Friday.

Still, as long as he is in office, the 54-year-old mayor continues to collect his $136,000-a-year salary. And by applying the state and city pension formulas to West’s salary history, pension plans and work history, it’s clear that for every month he remains mayor, his pension benefits increase. If West serves out his full four-year term – as he has said he intends to – his state pension at age 65 would be about $1,600 a month, instead of the $900 a month he’d get if he steps down now.

His city pension, which he’s already old enough to collect, would more than triple, from roughly $275 a month to $975 a month.

“Trust me, he is not going to step down,” Rodgers said. “It’s just the math.”

According to state pension documents, West is a member of at least three public retirement systems from his service as a law enforcement officer in the 1970s, a state lawmaker for 17 years, and as Spokane’s mayor since January 2004.

Under the complex rules governing employees in multiple public pension plans, an employee like West can blend key aspects of some retirement plans, according to Dawn Gothro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Retirement Systems. In essence, according to interviews with city retirement and human resources staff, employees in West’s situation can combine the most generous parts of each system.

For one thing, the state is already using West’s $136,000 city salary as part of the formula for his Public Employees Retirement System 3 state pension, instead of just the $35,000- to $41,500-a-year he was earning in his final years as a state lawmaker. Without the city salary to add to the equation, West’s full pension for 17 years of work would have been just $525 a month.

(Why so little? Because in 2002, West switched to a state pension plan that allowed him to put some of his retirement money into a 401(k)-style state investment plan. He accrued $76,754 in that account, according to state pension documents. He says that money, however, is now being tapped to pay his legal bills.)

Secondly, by blending his retirement plans, West is eligible for a city pension immediately. Normally, city employees have to work at least five years. But that requirement is trumped by West’s 17 years with the state.

Some have speculated that West’s desire to stay in office is driven by his need – as a recovering colon cancer patient – for ongoing health insurance coverage. But the city’s retirement system, according to Human Resources head Mike Shea, allows any retiree to buy medical coverage. It currently costs about $350 a month.

Amunrud wants the City Council to pass an ordinance so that if the mayor is recalled for misfeasance, his benefits will be minimal. “I mean, we need to do something,” she said. “While he fights this (recall) and is holding on by the skin of his teeth, he shouldn’t be rewarded with any of his pension and his medical (coverage).”

Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer, said he doesn’t think that West is hanging onto office for the cash. “You know, if you look through his career, there’s no indication that Jim is in politics for the money,” Cooley said. “He’s a professional politician, and as he’s said for many years, being mayor of Spokane is his dream job. I don’t believe that has changed.”

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