Concerns over proposed pay increases for Spokane Mayor David Condon and a majority of his 13 cabinet members are threatening to derail budget discussions at City Hall, as the mayor and City Council members forcefully argued their cases in dueling news conferences on Friday.
Standing in front of a C.O.P.S. shop in the West Central neighborhood Friday morning and flanked by four council members, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said a proposed $7,000 pay increase for Condon was “utterly ridiculous” and vowed to craft “a new budget that reflects the community’s values.”
In an afternoon news conference, Condon accused Stuckart of “politicizing” the issue and argued that his administration deserved credit for steadying the city’s finances and controlling its expensive obligations, like keeping pollutants out of the Spokane River as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Does this community want professionals that are able to deliver a cost of government that is more affordable now than we have seen in years? And doesn’t have a trajectory of double-digit (utility rate) increases?” Condon said.
In a two-page letter responding to the controversy, which he emailed to all city employees Friday morning, Condon said he would give the $7,000 raise in his proposed 2015 budget to charity. City administrators say the mayor’s raise was simply a function of a city law – approved by voters – that requires the mayor to earn the highest salary besides the city administrator. With the police chief scheduled to get a raise next year based on a raise union members of the department will get, Condon must take the same amount as the chief, they say.
“On a personal note, my wife and I have decided to donate the budgeted pay increase to further two important community causes,” Condon wrote at the end of his letter. He said they will give $1,000 to each of the special multicultural heritage month celebrations that the city is promoting. The rest will go to a nonprofit that serves youths.
The fate of Condon’s 2015 proposed budget, which was delivered to the council this week, was unclear.
The $585 million budget includes pay raises for the mayor and seven members of his cabinet totaling $38,000 and bringing the mayor’s annual compensation to $180,000. It also funds a police precinct in Hillyard and a program to hire and train police cadets ahead of outgoing officers.
Condon said “the lion’s share of the budget has been collaborative” with the council but said he looked forward to a “robust debate.” He said the budget didn’t rely on laying off employees or taking money from the city’s reserves, as in the past. In 2013, Condon slashed 93 positions from the city’s payroll.
Stuckart said Condon dismissed council budget priorities in favor of “thousands of dollars in raises for political appointees.” He said the budget “is now in our hands” and “if brought for a vote today, wouldn’t get a single vote.”
Stuckart framed the pay raises for the mayor and a majority of his cabinet as part of a pattern in Condon’s administration of dismantling union protections, increasing the number of “middle management” positions at City Hall and giving “upper administration” pay increases.
“This isn’t some isolated incident,” Stuckart said. “This is a pattern. That’s why this budget can’t stand. You will see a drastically different budget when this is passed.”
With a five-member majority of like-minded members, Stuckart said the council could craft its own budget and override any mayoral veto.
Stuckart’s council support was without question.
Councilwoman Amber Waldref said she was “disappointed” in Condon’s budget because it didn’t add another position in the city’s planning department, as the council requested. Waldref said the new planner would be focused on implementing the city’s Comprehensive Plan, its primary planning document, which Waldref said had been ignored for 10 years.
“I’m committed to changing this imbalance in the budget,” she said.
Councilwoman Candace Mumm said the city could do better in hiring more public safety officers and pointed to the estimated $2.8 million in overtime the police department is expected to pay this year. The fire department is anticipating $2.3 million in overtime pay. Mumm said the mayor’s “hire ahead” program would not address the issue of “overtaxing our staff by pushing them into overtime and burnout.”
Quoting U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Councilwoman Karen Stratton said 14 percent of the city’s residents live below the official poverty level. She noted that the median household income in Spokane is $47,485.
“The mayor will generate three times the median household income with his proposed raise in pay,” she said. “With this in mind, I’m concerned about our citizens.”
Condon said he believed his pay, which will be nearly $180,000 next year, was fair considering what other Washington mayors in similar-size cities receive.
The mayor of Tacoma, which has a similar population to Spokane, is paid less than $94,000 a year. Tacoma, however, doesn’t have a strong mayor form of government like Spokane and pays a city manager to lead the government.
Seattle does have a strong mayor form of government. Its mayor, Ed Murray, is paid $182,000. Seattle has almost 650,000 residents, and the city has more than 13,000 employees. Seattle’s median income is about $65,000. The city of Spokane, with more than 200,000 residents, has about 1,900 employees.
Condon pointed to a 2009 memo from the city’s legal department that said the mayor “has no authority to establish her own salary or to accept either more or less than provided by the City Charter” because the city “may be subject to a future claims if it fails to pay the full salary.”
Stuckart said Condon wasn’t obligated to take the full salary. Stuckart is scheduled to get a 4 percent raise next year, pushing his salary to $57,200 based on a decision in the spring from the city’s Salary Review Commission. Stuckart said Friday he will decline the increase.
“It’s ludicrous to stand up and make a legal argument why you have to take $180,000. I can guarantee you that no citizen of the city of Spokane, if the mayor didn’t take his $7,000 raise, would sue him because he’s not the highest-paid person,” he said.
Soon after losing her 2011 re-election bid, former Mayor Mary Verner made a request for money she had originally turned down. Verner had held her salary at $100,000, despite city law saying it should be higher. After the city denied her request, however, she did not pursue the issue further.
Councilman Mike Fagan, calling himself the minority on the council, was the only council member to defend the mayor’s pay, primarily because he said the city has made progress under Condon’s leadership.
“This council and this administration have gotten more done in the first two and a half years of our terms than any other administration since we went to the strong mayor form of government,” he said. “We have totally changed the face of City Hall. We have totally changed the police department. We spent two and half years reforming, restructuring, reorganizing the police department. … The list goes on and on and on.”
Councilman Mike Allen said he believed the mayor could deny a portion of his pay because “ultimately, the mayor has the discretion to do what he wants to do, as exhibited by other mayors.” He said the raises were “poorly timed” and distracted voters from “two really good ballot issues”: the Riverfront Park bond and 20-year street levy.
“The council and the mayor’s office have worked well for the last three years,” he said. “We need to get back to focusing on doing great things for our citizens and not get caught up in something petty.”
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