Seattle's council members among highest-paid in U.S.
Members of Seattle's City Council, already among the highest-paid in the country, are about to join the ranks of public employees pulling...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Members of Seattle's City Council, already among the highest-paid in the country, are about to join the ranks of public employees pulling down six-figure salaries.
A pay raise will boost the salaries of council members Jan Drago, Nick Licata, Richard Conlin and Richard McIver to nearly $104,000 next year, up from $94,000 now. Ten years ago, the job paid $71,000.
Among the nation's 40 largest cities, only Los Angeles pays its council more — $149,000, according to a survey by The Seattle Times. (Seattle ranks 23rd in population, according to the Census Bureau.)
Philadelphia comes close in salary, with most of its 17 council members receiving $102,000 and a few leaders getting up to $109,000. In San Francisco, the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors received $112,000 until last year, when a salary-setting commission decided that was too much and chopped their pay to $90,000.
Seattle's pay raises will go only to the four incumbents re-elected Nov. 8. The other five council members are paid $97,000. Those salaries, too, will rise after the next council elections in 2007, under a pay-increase formula the council adopted four years ago. By law, a council member's salary can be increased only every four years, following an election.
Drago, the council president, defended the salaries.
"I frankly think you get what you pay for," she said. "The reason we have had good city government is that we offer a good living wage."
How Seattle compares
1. Los Angeles: $149,160
2. Philadelphia: $102,292
3. Seattle: $93,960-$96,507
5. Washington, D.C.: $92,520
Drago said she thinks other public officials should be paid more, including state legislators, who next year will earn about $36,000 for the part-time job.
Seattle's City Council salaries still lag behind those of the Metropolitan King County Council, whose members get $110,000 — and automatic 3 percent raises every year.
While the City Council salaries represent only a minuscule portion of the $769 million general-fund budget next year, the example set by elected leaders can have a ripple effect, said Kriss Sjoblom, an economist with the Washington Research Council, a business-backed Seattle think tank that has warned the city to cut spending.
"If you are paying yourself a lot and giving yourself big pay raises, it's much harder to hold the line when negotiating pay with unions and employees," Sjoblom said.
Most unionized city employees have received cost-of-living raises of between 2 and 2.5 percent over the past few years. In January, they'll receive a 2.3 percent raise.
Comparisons between Seattle and other large cities can be tricky, since city councils vary in composition and duties. Some are part time, and in many cases, members represent geographic districts or wards. In Seattle, all nine council members are elected citywide and work full time.
Also, some other city councils grant extra bonuses for leadership positions and give council members free parking or city cars — perks not enjoyed by Seattle's council.
U.S. senators and representatives: $165,200*
Washington governor: $150,995**
State legislator: $36,311* and **
Seattle mayor: $148,000
Seattle City Council: $103,878 (for those members elected in November 2005)
*scheduled base salary for 2006; leadership pay is higher
**state salary changes take effect Sept. 1, 2006
Sources: Congressional Research Service; Washington Citizens' Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials
But by almost any standard, Seattle's council pay is generous.
Some cities, even large ones, regard their city councils as citizen legislatures and pay only a tiny stipend for the part-time job. For example, San Antonio council members are paid $20 a meeting — capped at $1,040 per year. Voters last year refused to grant them a pay raise.
The pay is higher in cities where the job is considered full time, but most still pay less than Seattle.
San Diego pays its council members $75,000. Detroit pays $81,000. Chicago will pay its 50 aldermen $98,000 next year, up from $95,000 this year. New York City pays $90,000, with bonuses for certain committee positions.
Seattle's council pay also outstrips that of local counterparts. Tacoma's council members are paid $33,000. Bellevue pays about $20,000, and Spokane $18,000. All of those positions are considered part-time.
In Portland, council members get about $91,000 and are responsible for running entire city departments. Portland Mayor Tom Potter, who is also a council member, receives $105,000.
With next year's pay increase, Drago, Licata, Conlin and McIver will join more than 230 other city employees who make more than $100,000 a year. The highest-paid city employee, Seattle City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco, makes more than $220,000. Mayor Greg Nickels is paid $145,000, rising to $148,000 next year.
The median salary for the city's 10,000 employees is about $50,000, said Norma McKinney, the city's personnel director.
In addition to a salary, each City Council member gets a budget of more than $200,000 to hire up to three full-time staff members and pay for office expenses.
The Seattle City Council's current salaries can be traced to an ordinance passed in 2001 with no fanfare, which changed the way council raises are calculated.
At that time, the council received raises every four years linked to the cost-of-living adjustments that had been granted to other city employees over the previous four years.
But council members thought that was unfair, since it meant council members' pay lagged behind actual inflation during their term.
Drago, then the chairwoman of the council finance committee, sponsored a change in the pay-raise formula so it gave council members forward-looking raises based on estimates of inflation in the future, instead of playing catch-up with the past.
During the transition to the new system, the council received significant pay increases in 2002 and 2004, because council members received both "catch-up" raises based on the previous four years, and forward-looking raises for the next four years. Four council positions got pay increases of about $16,500 each in 2002. The other five received a $12,000 pay increase in 2004.
While Seattle's council salaries haven't been a major issue, pay for elected officials can be politically touchy.
In San Jose, the city council and mayor over the past four years turned down two pay raises recommended by an independent commission. Political leaders said it would not be right to accept more money when the city was laying off hundreds of employees and freezing the pay of those who remained.
"Each time it came up, the council said 'This is not a good time for us to accept a pay increase when we're asking our employees to tighten their belts.' It was really symbolic leadership," said David Vossbrink, spokesman for San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales.
Seattle has also undergone lean budget times over the past four years, cutting back library hours and police positions, but there have been no calls for elected officials to forgo their own raises.
Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said money isn't what motivates him to do the job.
"I don't want the violins to come out. I chose this job. I love this job. But if it were the money I was after, I'd do something else," said Steinbrueck, an architect by training.
Steinbrueck said his work days begin with reading e-mail at 5 a.m. and often don't end until well into the night with community events. Sometimes, he said, the job seems endless.
"My mind is always working until I fall asleep, and then it goes on in my dreams," he said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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