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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane 2015 budget pays 164 workers six figures

The number of city employees earning six figures has increased under Spokane Mayor David Condon, despite his critical stance against such high earners when he was campaigning for office and drastic cuts to the number of people on the city’s payroll under his watch.

In Condon’s 2015 budget proposal, 164 positions at City Hall will earn more than $100,000, not counting overtime pay. Of the top 100 paid positions at City Hall, 64 are from the police or fire departments.

In 2010, during Mayor Mary Verner’s administration, 103 positions were budgeted at $100,000. If overtime is included, 190 city employees earned six figures that year.

Critics of the mayor say he is cutting the city’s unionized workforce in favor of managers who are exempt from Civil Service rules. Last week, by a 6-1 vote, the council rejected a request from Jan Quintrall, head of the city’s Business and Development Services Division, to absorb two Civil Service positions into one exempt managerial position.

“We’ve seen the workforce shrink, and we’ve seen the bosses increase,” Council President Ben Stuckart said. “We shouldn’t be creating any more exempt positions outside of Civil Service.”

Condon disagreed, pointing to labor contracts, primarily in public safety, that he said are to blame for the growth in well-heeled public servants, calling it the “impact of contracts that were signed before I got here.”

Aside from working closely with unions during negotiations, Condon said he would lobby the state Legislature for a change in state law to allow factors such as household income and housing costs to be considered during binding arbitration for police and fire unions, something he said would drive down pay increases. The proposal has been on the city’s lobbying agenda for years, including under former Mayor Mary Verner. He said this proposal is supported by Vancouver, Bellingham, Yakima and the Association of Washington Cities.

“I’ve been straightforward with our labor groups: the cost of government won’t grow faster than what our income is, which is 2.5 to 3 percent,” he said. “Fire Local 29, the Guild, the lieutenants and captains and the battalion chiefs all have an automatic increase. What did that do to us?”

Not only did it drive up base salary, Condon said, but it increased overtime pay at the city. In 2009, the city paid about $4 million in overtime, more than half of it going to public safety. In 2011, that number jumped to more than $5 million. In 2013, the most recent complete year of payroll data and the first year under Condon’s budgetary control, more than $7 million was paid in overtime at the city.

The mayor’s budget proposal anticipates a slight decrease in overtime pay for 2015.

In 2013, 213 city employees earned six figures with overtime. Bobby Williams, the fire chief, topped the list, followed closely by Condon. The next six highest earners were fire battalion chiefs, their wages driven to the top by more than $20,000 in overtime each.

Now, Condon says he’ll lead the charge to control the cost of government by conducting a survey of every city employee salary and ensuring they are consistent with those in the private sector.

It’s a more nuanced view than what Condon articulated early on the campaign trail, when he targeted city employees earning more than $100,000.

“Do you know we have over a hundred positions that make over $100,000,” Condon asked a crowd of supporters at a campaign kickoff breakfast in 2011. “Could you imagine what we could do with that money to put us back onto the national stage again?”

Stuckart suggested the mayor had promised one thing as a candidate while not acting on it as mayor.

“When your platform is, ‘There are too many people earning six figures,’ and then there’s growth of those same people when you’re mayor, it shows a disconnect,” he said.

Stuckart said what was more troubling than the growth of salaries is the growth of non-unionized positions. The 74 exempt positions in the proposed 2015 city budget will earn almost $650,000 more in 2015 than they do this year. Those positions include directors at City Hall as well as the police ombudsman, city clerk, city council assistants, budget director, historic preservation officer, water director, public defender and capital projects coordinator, among many others.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton said she was troubled by the administration’s efforts to “go around Civil Service.” Stratton was the first to speak against Quintrall’s effort to add another management position in the Business and Development Services Division, noting that if the new position was approved, six administrative positions in that department alone would have earned $620,000.

Stratton said she worried the proliferation of exempt positions would lead to favoritism in job appointments at City Hall. To prevent this, Stratton said she is preparing an ordinance that would demand more clarity when a department wants to create new exempt positions. According to a draft of the ordinance, the law will require “an organizational chart for the respective department identifying where the new exempt position fits in the department organization and the reasoning for exempting the position from Civil Service classification.”

Condon said focusing on wages misses a larger goal of his administration: reorganizing City Hall to be more efficient.

In his first budget, Condon slashed 93 positions from the payroll, including eight exempt positions that were paid more than $100,000, his first salvo in making the city more efficient. His administration has combined departments, and redefined positions at City Hall.

“I’ve looked at the total growth of expenditures at the city, and we’ve curtailed that in a major way,” he said.

Still, salaries have so far been the focus of his budget, in part because Condon proposed getting a $7,000 raise for himself, making him, along with police Chief Frank Straub, the highest-paid city employee and one of the best-paid mayors in the region with a salary of nearly $180,000.

At first, Condon vigorously defended the pay increase as a function of city law before saying he would donate the $7,000. After pushback from the public and criticism from the council, Condon said he wouldn’t take the raise.

Mike Fagan, the only council member to defend the mayor’s pay, has taken the lead in organizing public discussions about administrative raises. Three public forums have been scheduled in November to discuss the wages.

Condon, for one, said he understands why people think his annual salary is too high.

“We have a median household income that is substantially less than” what the mayor earns, Condon said. “They’re the ones paying the bills. I look at that median household income all the time. People say, ‘Mayor, you shouldn’t get an increase until the median household income goes up.’ I agree with them. Let’s talk about solutions to this rather than just exposing it.”

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