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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Commission will consider if Spokane City Council members deserve pay raises

UPDATED: Wed., May 20, 2020

Members of the Spokane City Council, pictured at a meeting, argue they should receive raises. (Tyler Tjomsland / Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the Spokane City Council, pictured at a meeting, argue they should receive raises. (Tyler Tjomsland / Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Serving on the Spokane City Council is a little like playing on the Chicago Bulls.

Just ask Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke who, like millions of other Americans stuck in quarantine, just watched ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance.”

“Dennis Rodman puts it nicely. He says that he would play the game for free – that is the easy part. The hard part is off the courts. The media and the drama while not playing is what he feels he gets paid for,” Burke wrote.

Burke and her colleagues on the City Council responded this month to a questionnaire from the Salary Review Commission, which will take up the issue of how much council members earn at a public hearing on Thursday.

The Salary Review Commission reviews the council and mayor’s salaries every two years. Two seats on the five-seat commission are vacant.

Many, including Council President Breean Beggs, believe they’re due for a raise, and offered blunt assessments of their roles as city council members.

Beggs, for example, compared the salary of a City Council member – $46,700 – to that of the mayor – $168,000.

“As the community expects more from council members in terms of time commitment and professional expertise, there seems to be little rationale for a nearly four to one difference in compensation,” wrote Beggs, who estimated he works 60 hours per week since becoming the council president in January. He earns $62,000 annually as the council president.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm didn’t look to the executive branch for a benchmark – she looked to her own employee.

“I make less than my Legislative Aide,” Mumm wrote in a one-sentence reply to a question about whether her compensation is commensurate with her workload.

Thursday’s look at City Council salaries is set to be the latest part in the ongoing debate on the scope of its members’ role, as the council expands its office and looks to take a lead in developing city policy.

Since council salaries were last increased, the number of employees in the council’s office has grown to 21, an increase of 31%, Beggs wrote. Last fall, against the wishes of outgoing Mayor David Condon, the council added several positions to its office’s budget, arguing that the community expects more out of the council than ever before.

Councilman Michael Cathcart, who has only been in office since January, did not respond to the questionnaire but penned a letter to the Salary Review Commission. Like Condon before he left office, Cathcart argued that voters should have the opportunity to weigh in if serving on the council is to become a full-time gig.

“Council work does require a substantial time commitment due to the gradual mission creep that has occurred over many years, which may be good and/or bad, but in many ways this transition has occurred without direct input from voters,” Cathcart wrote.

Beggs, in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, argued that the expansion of policy work within the council office was necessary because, under previous administrations, “that work was just not getting done.”

“That, to me, made it imperative that we push ahead and get some people actually getting policy done,” Beggs said.

But several council members laid out the brutal demands of the job.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton serves on 12 commissions and boards, in addition to attending the regular City Council meetings.

“As the City grows so does the complexity of our jobs. However, until these city council positions are considered full-time, there will always be a disconnect between the time commitment and the wages for the position,” Stratton wrote, adding “this disconnect may always be a part of the arrangement.”

Council members who support the raise believe it will widen the pool of people who are interested.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear argued that the current salary would dissuade a young person, particularly one with children, from running for office.

“Those in their prime earning years are not going to forgo a livable wage and future pension package to serve for four to eight years as a council member. The current salary is below Spokane’s livable wage for a single person,” Kinnear wrote.

Burke is one such person.

When she was deciding to run for office, the council member salary was $31,200, far below what she made as a legislative assistant for state Sen. Andy Billig.

“It was going to be a struggle for me to make it work, but I wanted to serve the people – so I was just going to figure something out,” Burke wrote.

But the Salary Review Commission increased members’ salaries to $45,000 in 2016, which Burke said made her “panic ease.”

Burke suggested that Spokane City Council members earn a salary between the current figure and that of Seattle City Council members – $129,686.

Tacoma has a population close to Spokane’s but has a council and city manager form of government, without a mayor, placing more burden on the City Council. Its council members earn $44,990.40

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward’s salary is also up for review. While she described the job as “24/7,” she did not ask for a raise.

“I trust the judgement of the (human resources) professionals and citizen review commission to make this determination,” Woodward wrote.

The public hearing is scheduled from 3:30 PM to 5:30 p.m. It will be held virtually on Webex. Public comment can be given through Webex or by phone by dialing 1-408-418-9388 and entering access code 966 959 193.

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