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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council gets pay raise in 2019, mayor’s salary stays flat

FILE - Mayor David Condon, right, gave an update about the City of Spokane’s financial condition and ongoing constructin projects during a speech to the Spokane City Council. In this photo from 2016, City Council President Ben Stuckart is shown at left. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane lawmakers will see a bump in their paychecks beginning in 2019, while the salary of the mayor will remain flat for a fourth straight year.

A panel of citizens tasked with reviewing compensation for the city’s elected officials approved what they described as cost-of-living adjustments for Spokane City Council members and the Spokane City Council president. Council member pay will go up 3.5 percent, to $46,700. The council president, elected citywide and the member presiding over official meetings of the panel, will see a pay increase of 5.7 percent, to $62,000 annually, beginning next year.

The Salary Review Commission was established by law in 2007 to review city council members’ pay independently of lawmaker influence. In 2015, at the request of Mayor David Condon and with the approval of 80 percent of city voters, the panel was tasked with also reviewing the mayor’s compensation.

After this year’s review, the panel may be asked to go further in reviewing pay at City Hall, but that decision is still a ways off, city lawmakers say.

The mayor will continue to earn $168,000, following a decision to reduce that position’s pay in 2015. Salary review commissioners, reviewing pay data from across the state as well as in cities comparable to Spokane’s size and form of government, determined that salary was already among the most lucrative in the category.

Spokane is the second-largest city in Washington state. Condon is paid the third most of any mayor statewide, with executives in Seattle ($195,192) and Everett ($181,542) receiving a higher annual salary.

However, among cities with similar population sizes and a strong-mayor form of government, like Spokane’s, the mayor is paid the most. Only the mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city of 177,571 people, is paid more than $160,000 in that category.

A request to reduce the mayor’s salary to $160,000 received just one vote from the five-member panel. Some commissioners said they felt uncomfortable voting to reduce the mayor’s salary twice in successive reviews.

Brian Coddington, a spokesman for the mayor, said Condon respected the process, noting that the mayor pushed for this type of review three years ago.

“The mayor trusts the commission to do its work, and complete a thorough review process,” Coddington said.

That process did not include interviews of current elected officials, discussions that had been completed in previous biennial reviews of pay. But former council members had weighed in, including Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder, arguing that, in particular, the City Council president deserved a bump in pay.

“The council president is at the epicenter for all policy, not just in the city of Spokane, but the whole county,” Snyder said. “The amount of effort, and constituent research, requires an enormous amount of time.”

Snyder noted that, at $62,000, the council president is still paid far less than any of the elected officials in Spokane County, who all receive six-figure salaries.

Stuckart will earn the second-highest salary of council presidents among cities of similar size and government types in the nation, trailing only the leader of the City Council in Yonkers, New York, who makes $74,000.

Both he and Condon will only be subject to the new salary amounts for one year, because of term limits.. Stuckart is seeking election as the city’s next mayor.

Former City Councilman Mike Allen, along with colleague Steve Salvatori, pushed for a citizen ballot question asking whether residents believed their council members should be considered full-time employees before their pay was increased.

“I have no problem with the salary level, but the citizens should have had a chance to weigh in on whether the council should be full time,” Allen said.

Sitting council members, who received a 44 percent pay raise in the last review of their compensation, said the demands of the job and expectations of the citizens made them full-time employees. The salary level rising will attract more qualified and dedicated representatives, they said.

“I think before we can really address the salary question, we have to look at the expectation that the community has of what we do,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. “Until we do that, we’re just kind of shooting in the dark.”

One of the concerns raised by past and current council members was that the pay scale discouraged younger people, and those with families and children, from running for office. City Councilwoman Kate Burke, elected in November as the youngest member of the panel in more than a decade, said the pay bump was just about right for someone in her position to serve.

“It’s not like we’re high income,” Burke said. “I can live off that, have a house, car, and everything I need to survive, and I’m happy to spend 60-plus hours a week doing this job.”

The pay increase makes Spokane City Council members the fourth-highest paid among lawmakers in similar-sized cities with similar government structures. The change also raises council compensation above the city’s median household income, which is $45,676 in the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The commission’s work may not end at reviewing elected officials’ salaries, though lawmakers appear wary to change the scope of their work.

Condon has suggested the volunteer panel’s work include department heads and other employees at City Hall who aren’t represented by unions. The idea was floated in a meeting between the mayor and several City Council members last month as a way of addressing lawmakers’ concerns that pay for those positions was swelling, a position that fueled Stuckart’s proposal to institute salary caps for city employees.

“That’s still the desire that the mayor has, to take the emotion out of it, and also to look at the total compensation package,” Coddington said.

In a letter to council members sent following the meeting, Condon said such an arrangement “eliminates outside pressures in the same way adding the mayor’s salary to commission review removed politics.”

Condon requested that the report of the salary review commission be delayed to include those employees, but the group wrapped up its work Tuesday without a legal change that would allow them to review the salaries of those employees.

City Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who chairs the city’s finance committee, said she believed lawmakers and the administration could continue to review those salaries without putting an additional burden on the volunteer panel.

“I have some concerns about the high pay of some of our employees,” Mumm said. “I would like to have a longer discussion about how we come to those decisions.”

Stuckart said Thursday that his proposal for a salary cap will still come up for a vote before the panel, now being sponsored by City Councilwoman Karen Stratton. He said the issues of elected official pay and the salary of city employees should be handled separately, though he said he was open to discussing the possibility.

“It’s a volunteer commission that meets every other year. It does a lot of due diligence, and it takes up a lot of time to do that,” Stuckart said of the salary review panel.