With a controversial 5-2 vote, the Kent City Council approved forming a salary commission in an effort to raise the annual pay for the full-time mayor and seven part-time council members.
Mayor Dana Ralph will later appoint the three-member Independent Salary Commission and the council will confirm the appointments. The initial meeting to review pay will occur within 30 days after the members are chosen.
“We don’t do this because we get paid a lot of money, we do it for our city,” Councilmember Toni Troutner said at the Nov. 15 council meeting prior to the vote. “But when you compare our salaries and the mayor’s salary to other cities, we are just up from the bottom. I think it says something if we don’t put value on the work we do. We are not putting ourselves at the same level as other cities.”
Troutner said other cities have salary commissions that meet and compare salaries of their mayor and council with other cities.
Mayor Ralph makes an annual salary of $164,040, according to city documents. The part-time council members make $16,752 per year, with the council president getting $17,664 per year because of extra duties. The mayor and council receive a 2.5% pay raise each year for a cost-of-living adjustment.
Councilmembers Marli Larimer and Satwinder Kaur voted against forming a salary commission.
“We just passed a status quo (2023-2024) budget,” Larimer said. “We told our staff there would not be significant increases in programs or staffing. I disagree with the timing when we just said no to a lot of things. It’s not the right message to our staff.”
Council President Bill Boyce supports a pay increase.
“I think this is something that needs to be done not only for the existing council but for future council members,” Boyce said.
Earlier on Nov. 15 at the council’s Operations and Public Safety Committee meeting, Boyce said he knew it was a status quo budget but he didn’t think it would have much of an impact on the budget.
City staff wrote in their proposal to form the salary commission that the 2.5% annual pay hike hasn’t kept up with inflation. Staff also noted that the cities of Auburn, Bellevue, Everett, Renton, Federal Way, Kirkland, Lakewood and others review salaries of their elected officials each year or every other year.
“It’s possible that salaries for Kent elected officials may have fallen behind those salaries paid by our neighboring cities,” according to staff documents.
Kaur said with a status-quo budget the next two years and projected budget deficits in the following years, a raise doesn’t seem appropriate.
‘We don’t need to increase our salaries at this point,” Kaur said. “We can wait three or four years to see where the budget is.”
Under the ordinance, part of the duties of the commission will be to collect and release salary information from comparable cities with a population of at least 25,000, be located in King, Pierce or Snohomish counties and operate under a mayor-council plan of government.
The ordinance also requires that residents be given a chance to comment on any proposed salary increase or decrease prior to a vote by the commission.
Boyce said the proposal came about in part because the city has approved pay increases for police officers and negotiations are underway for other city employees that will address cost-of-living adjustments, so it made sense to look at the pay for the mayor and council.
“And with a (established) commission, they can say yes or no each year,” Boyce said about the salary review of elected officials.
Salary commission history
A commission that increases pay for the mayor and council has been a controversial issue in Kent for at least a couple of decades.
Then-Mayor Suzette Cooke proposed a hike in her salary in 2014 during the 2015 budget cycle because there had not been a raise in 10 years. The council didn’t act on Cooke’s proposal as part of the budget.
But in 2015, after discussion during a council retreat, the council formed a five-member Independent Salary Commission to review pay of the mayor and council.
That commission approved in 2015 a 35% pay hike for the mayor, which boosted the annual salary to $138,000 per year from $102,192. The 2.5% annual pay hike has increased the mayor’s salary to its current $164,040.
Prior to the 35% pay increase, the Kent mayor had the lowest pay among the cities of Everett, Renton, Bellingham, Auburn and Federal Way. The boost put Kent as the third highest salary among the six cities.
As far as council pay, the salary commission raised it 2.5% in 2015 from $13,752 per year and approved the annual 2.5% increases. Kent’s pay to council members ranked fourth among Everett, Bellingham, Federal Way and Auburn.
When the council formed that commission, part of the agreement was it would disband if annual pay increases were included, so the council disbanded the group later in 2015.
Kent had a salary commission under then-Mayor Jim White (1994-2005), but White recommended in the early 2000s to disband the group and the council agreed.
“It got to be controversial,” said then-City Attorney Tom Brubaker in an 2015 interview about the return of a salary commission. “Everyone gets mad at a salary increase for elected officials. The three-person commission raised salaries because they were out of whack with what other cities paid. The clamor never died down and the complaints came in. Mayor White recommended it and the council disbanded it.”