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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council seeks more assistance

Pay cuts for other positions would fund extra hours for members’ part-time support staff

Although facing significant budget troubles in 2011, Spokane City Council members today will consider spending $50,000 to increase the hours worked by their personal assistants.

Once considered a part-time job, Spokane City Council members say they believe their council duties require full-time attention. At the end of 2007, the same year they voted to give themselves part-time assistants, they also created a Salary Review Commission, which increased council pay from $18,000 to $30,000 a year.

Council members stress they will make other cuts to their budget to pay for the change, which would bump up the assistants’ hours from 20 to 28 per week. The council plans to reduce the pay of its unfilled auditor job by about $40,000 a year and lower the salaries of two other workers.

“It’s not going to change the council budget. We were very careful about that,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref.

Increasing hours for their assistants will increase council members’ effectiveness and help them be more responsive to citizen inquiries, they say. Councilman Steve Corker said the workload of the council is significantly greater in recent years because members serve on more boards and attend more functions. He said the city’s recent financial concerns also require more time.

Said Councilman Richard Rush, “clearly you can do more things with two hands than with one, and certainly more with four hands than with two.”

Before the council voted to create the extra positions in 2007, it had one full-time and one part-time assistant. It now has two full-time assistants, and five members each have part-time assistants. Councilman Bob Apple and Council President Joe Shogan have declined to hire assistants.

In an interview last week, former Councilman Brad Stark questioned further increases in the assistants’ hours, even if new spending is offset.

“How does this help the $10 million budget shortfall headed into next year?” said Stark, who was the only council member who voted against the creation of personal assistants.

Under the plan to increase council staff hours, the personal assistants would be paid $14.37 per hour, up from $14, and will be eligible for the city’s pension program, though they still would not receive medical benefits.

The proposal also would reduce the pay of the council’s two full-time staff members. Council administrator Mary Franklin’s pay would go from $68,214 a year to $62,326. Council research assistant Todd Babcock’s salary will fall from $57,357 to $50,007.

The largest cut would come from the pay of the council’s internal auditor, a job that has been empty since last fall. The council opted to let its contract with internal auditor Gwen Fuller-Vernier expire last year. She earned $114,192 a year. With benefits, it cost the city about $143,000 a year, Shogan said.

Rush said city councils that didn’t have personal assistants got by “by being considerably less effective.”

Phyllis Holmes, who served on the council from 1993 until 2001, said the strong-mayor form of government approved in 1999 likely results in the council adding more staff to establish independence from the mayor. Even so, she said council members arguably have less responsibility because the city’s administration no longer answers to them.

“It would have been nice, but I managed” without an assistant, Holmes said. “It just meant that I stayed up late at night.”