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Originally published September 17, 2011 at 6:30 PM | Page modified September 17, 2011 at 10:10 PM

1 in 5 city of Seattle workers earning six figures

The number of Seattle city employees making at least $100,000 has grown tenfold in less than a decade, with one in five workers earning six figures last year. But it's not bureaucrats behind desks driving the surge.

Seattle Times staff reporters

How we did the analysis

To report this story, The Seattle Times analyzed nine years (2002-10) of payroll data provided by the city of Seattle. The data included regular, overtime and gross pay, as well as department and job title for part-time and full-time employees.

The Times calculated the number of employees making at least $100,000 in each department using the gross pay, which typically equals regular pay plus overtime pay. However, for some employees, gross pay might also include additional compensation such as vacation cash-outs, workers' compensation, standby and/or premium pay. In some cases, employee benefits such as a retirement match or health care for domestic partners are counted as gross pay.

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The number of Seattle city employees making at least $100,000 has grown tenfold in less than a decade, with one in five workers earning six figures last year.

But it's not bureaucrats behind desks driving the surge.

Of the 2,309 city employees in the six-figure club last year, 79 percent worked in three departments: police, fire and City Light. The vast majority were rank-and-file union employees — police officers, firefighters and power-line workers — not management types.

You can trace significant increases in $100,000 employees to recent contracts for those workers.

"I've got to believe that's what happened," said David Bracilano, the city's labor-relations chief, of the link between $100,000 pay and contractual raises for police, fire and City Light workers.

Overall, as the city continues to contend with a dreary economy, it is looking for ways to contain expenses. Total payroll last year, for example, dropped by $38 million.

But even as the belt-tightening occurs and some wages are frozen, the city is paying out for what was negotiated before the recession — salaries that make Seattle more competitive with other jurisdictions.

The police department saw a big jump in six-figure employees in 2008 — from 265 to 684 employees. That year, officers agreed to a new contract hailed by former Mayor Greg Nickels as a "major milestone" for police pay.

Officers received 12 percent raises, including an 8 percent retroactive raise for 2007. A veteran officer at the top pay grade would have made about $80,000 before the new contract, Bracilano said. Add raises provided for in the new contract and some overtime and that officer could well have topped $100,000 in pay.

The trend continued at the fire department and City Light.

At the fire department, the biggest increase in six-figure employees came in 2009, when firefighters won a 6.2 percent raise.

The size of City Light's six-figure club more than tripled in 2006. That year, members of City Light's largest union received an 8.3 percent increase in salaries, with most of that retroactive pay for 2005. Overtime at the municipal utility also exploded that year, from $10 million to $24 million.

Outside of police, fire and City Light, where workers with dangerous jobs commanded high pay, most of the city's $100,000- workers wore white collars. They were executives, managers, strategic advisers, information-technology specialists, engineers and lawyers.

Their ranks actually declined last year from 724 to 492 — a drop of 32 percent.

But don't be misled. The reduction in six-figure white-collar staff appears temporary.

Most employees who dipped below the $100,000 threshold did so because they took 10 unpaid furlough days last year, the equivalent of a 4 percent pay cut.

Most of those same workers will not be required to take furloughs this year and could expect to rejoin the club.

Still, the city last year had a significantly higher percentage of $100,000 employees (21 percent) than King County (11 percent).

Price of accountability

Police accounted for the biggest share, by department, of employees making $100,000 — one-third of the city total.

"I don't make any excuses for our wages," says Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the union that represents about 1,200 officers and sergeants.

Seattle police officers were relatively underpaid before 2008, O'Neill says. Until then, their annual starting pay ranked behind seven West Coast cities used as comparables in bargaining. (The "West Coast Seven" are Portland, Sacramento, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland, San Jose and San Diego.)

Seattle was having well-documented problems hiring new officers back when the economy was roaring. And it was losing its own to nearby cities that paid more. The 2008 contract aimed "to stop the exodus," O'Neill said, "and attract the best and brightest."

It committed to a 25.6 percent increase in wages over four years.

The milestone pact sought to do even more.

After high-profile incidents of alleged officer misconduct, Nickels convened a panel in 2007 to recommend improvements in police accountability.

The group, which included former Gov. Gary Locke and former U.S. Attorney Mike McKay, came up with 29 recommendations. They included strengthening the role of the police department's civilian auditor and civilian accountability director.

In 2008, a year from his campaign for a third term, Nickels pushed to implement all 29 suggestions — which came at a price.

"We had to pay money because the Guild considers [the changes] an erosion of their rights," Bracilano said.

After raises that year, Seattle moved into the middle of the West Coast Seven pack for starting salaries; Seattle cops with 10 years on the force did the same, according to union statistics.

Within Washington state, Seattle officers became the highest paid, for both new hires and 10-year veterans, after the 2008 raises. Nickels even touted that fact in a news release.

That's where Seattle officers should rank, O'Neill says. "We have the most dangerous jobs."

Overtime is key

Kenny Stuart, president of Seattle Firefighters Local 27, makes a similar argument.

"We're infected by people, exposed to carcinogens, it's all this invisible stuff, not just collapsing buildings," he says.

One big difference, though, between pay for police and firefighters is overtime.

While overtime amounted to just 6 percent of city payroll last year, it was a decisive factor for a majority of the city employees who made six figures last year — particularly firefighters.

Firefighters led the city in median overtime per employee last year, with $10,949 — more than twice as much as police. Unlike other city departments, fire-department overtime has steadily climbed over the last decade.

That's because it essentially has been built into the firefighters' work. Their 2008 contract calls for four firefighters to work on all trucks at all times. If one crew member is out sick or on vacation, another firefighter is brought in on overtime to fill the requirement.

By contrast, if a police officer patrolling Ballard calls in sick, O'Neill says, there's just one fewer cop on the streets. Overtime for police is driven more by special events, such as parades and big games, or high-profile crimes that involve intensive investigations.

The city could easily reduce firefighters' overtime, Stuart says: Just hire more firefighters. But the city finds it more economical, he says, to pay a certain amount of overtime. A City Council analysis this year confirmed that was true for police officers "due to the cost of benefits and paid time off" and officers on disability and extended leave.

The real measure of firefighter pay in Seattle, Stuart says, isn't whether it crosses a kind of random "round number" such as $100,000. Rather, it's how it stacks up against the West Coast Seven cities, he says, where Seattle usually ranks in the middle of the pack.

According to Bracilano, the labor-relations director, "the city has taken a position that it's OK for Seattle to rank in the middle" of the seven.

City Light's been on an overtime roller coaster in recent years.

When the Hanukkah Eve Storm of 2006 clobbered the region with downed trees and power outages, City Light had 30 vacant lineman positions because of tight budgets and a labor shortage.

City Light tried to call in contractors. But it couldn't find enough quickly. Snohomish County Public Utility District had a similar problem. The region needed more linemen; City Light's overtime bill was staggering.

It was further inflated that year by the city's building boom and work on Sound Transit's new light-rail line and new Seattle Housing Authority projects, said Suzanne Hartman, City Light communications director.

City Light brought overtime costs down in each of the next three years, in part, because the big transit and housing projects were completed. But the utility also hired line workers and revived its apprentice program.

Overtime shot back up last year. Major outages, unforeseen regulatory tests, downtown network upgrades, which had to occur at night, all played a part, Hartman says. Then a dog on Queen Anne was killed by "touch voltage" from a metal plate next to a light pole, leading to citywide testing.

"This is a balancing act," says Hartman. "If we can predict our workloads and can foresee work continuing, it makes sense to hire. However, in our world we can't predict some of the things that may happen that drive the need for overtime."

Austerity measures

Some city employees ask: Why draw the line at $100,000? It's just an arbitrary number that salaries will eventually cross; only 8 percent of city workers outside police, fire and City Light hit that mark last year.

Why not focus on the city's recent cost savings? Firefighters, for instance, went without cost-of-living increases last year and this one. Executives and managers did the same. Other city union members agreed to trim their cost-of-living raises. The city is also restructuring some workers' schedules as a way to reduce overtime.

To be fair, 8,500 of the city's 10,600 workers took some kind of hit in pay this year — either a freeze, or a reduced cost-of-living increase, according to Mayor Mike McGinn.

Still, $100,000 is well above Seattle's estimated median household income of $60,000.

And it's illustrative of the city's steady, though unspectacular payroll increase, which over the last decade has averaged 4.5 percent a year.

"We had a number of good years in the economy, which was reflected in compensation increases," McGinn said. "That's the situation I took office in, and now have to work with."

McGinn said he couldn't yet detail his 2012 budget — to be released late this month — or preview any austerity measures. But he noted that 93 management positions have been cut since he took office last year.

Police and firefighter unions are negotiating new contracts. Key players are mum about specifics but say they're mindful of the sagging economy's effect on taxpayers.

"These are different times. I think the city and union recognize that," O'Neill says.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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