Uneven pay greets new City Council
Talk about being in the minority.
When the University Place City Council holds its first meeting of the year Tuesday, three newly elected council members will start earning less than half the pay the four others receive.
Decisions last year by the City Council, combined with a restriction under the state constitution, means veteran council members will earn more than $36,000 this year – more than twice the compensation of the three members who were elected in November.
The disparity will grow even larger in 2013.
The News Tribune reported in November 2010 that UP City Council members drew a higher salary than their peers in more than a dozen comparable Washington cities. In addition, UP council members received more benefits than the city’s own full-time employees.
A month later, the council voted to end the allowance its members receive each month for medical, dental and vision insurance.
But Washington’s constitution prohibits council members from adjusting their own compensation during the middle of terms, so sitting council members will continue to receive the allowance through the end of 2013.
Their junior colleagues won’t receive it.
That means those elected in November 2009 will earn $3,031 each month this year compared with $1,494 for council members elected two years later.
Most of the council members interviewed last week said they don’t have an issue with the pay difference, saying they ran for office to serve and improve the community, not make money.
Kent Keel said he’s “used to being paid nothing for an elected position.” He served 10 years as a director for the University Place School District before voters elected him to the City Council in November.
“Personally, I didn’t run for the council for the money,” he said. “I have a job. I’m gainfully employed. I ran for council because I think I will make a positive change for the citizens of our community.”
Councilwoman Denise McCluskey, who provided the key fourth vote in 2010 to do away with the allowance, added: “I believe it puts everyone in the right alignment,” so that council pay eventually will be similar to other cities.
But Ken Grassi, who has served on the council since the city’s birth in 1995, was of a different opinion. He had opposed eliminating the allowance, saying the council received fair compensation for the time they put in and the responsibilities they bear.
Saying the pay disparity won’t be an issue is easy to say, but it could fester down the road, he said.
“It would be a very human nature thing to later look at it and say it doesn’t seem fair and then it does become an issue,” Grassi said.
The council established the monthly medical allowance in 2002; over the next decade, it increased from $273 to $1,537 to keep pace with rising health costs as prescribed by city ordinance.
The allowance also came with a perk: If council members didn’t enroll in the city’s insurance or used only a portion of their allowance, they received cash. It was a benefit no other Pierce County city offers.
The state constitution bars sitting council members from adjusting their own compensation during their terms, either up or down. The council must establish a salary commission if it wants to increase salaries midterm, but it cannot decrease them that way.
As a result, Eric Choiniere, Javier Figueroa, Grassi and McCluskey, the council members with two years left in their terms, will continue to receive the benefit.
But there’s another catch: The city now only offers it in the form of cash. It ended insurance coverage for council members last January because at least four of them had to enroll to continue it in 2011, and Councilwoman Caroline Belleci opted out after getting coverage from her employer.
As a result, the four sitting council members will receive a bigger check, while the two rookies, Keel and Chris Nye, won’t receive any cash allowance. Nor will Belleci, an appointed council member whom voters elected to a four-year term in November.
The pay for Keel, Nye and Belleci will be limited to the $1,408 a month they earn in salary.
Although Belleci said she’s not bothered about being paid less than half the amount of council veterans, she added: “If I had my way, we would not have received a cash payout of those insurance benefits. I think it’s totally wrong.”
The council set the new salary last year for members appointed or elected after November 2011. But it doesn’t apply to council members elected before that date, whose salary is governed by an ordinance passed in September 2005.
That ordinance also provided for 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment each year. The council also did away with that last year, but, again, veteran council members will continue to receive it until their current terms expire.
Calculate the dueling pay over a full year, and veterans will be paid $36,379 in 2012 compared with $16,896 for the junior members.
The disparity will grow in 2013 as the veterans will receive the 3 percent COLA and increase in the monthly allowance to again reflect rising health costs. All told, the veterans’ annual salary would jump to $38,736, according to a News Tribune estimate.
The mayor and deputy mayor, whom the council will select today to serve two-year terms, will make even more. Those positions receive extra pay each month as compensation for their additional responsibilities and ceremonial roles.
As a result, a veteran council member selected mayor would earn $39,943 in 2012 and would top $42,400 in 2013 including projected increases.
A junior member, if selected mayor, would earn $20,256 this year.
The playing field becomes level for all seven council members in January 2014.
Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 email@example.com