How much should our mayor be paid?

July 31, 2013 07:03 by Ryan

As the Skagit Valley Herald reported a while back, the City Council recently discussed a proposal to increase the mayor’s base salary from $103,663 to $110,000. I can’t imagine why we’re considering this during the “toughest budget year in 19 years,” but since the mayor has proposed it, let’s talk about it.

The Mayor’s Salary Schedule As It Is Now

First, Dean Maxwell is already the 13th highest paid mayor in the State of Washington as reported by both the Herald article above and this South Whidbey Record article from 2011.

Second, the City of Anacortes is the only city in the state that has adopted a salary schedule for its mayor. This salary schedule increases the mayor’s salary 2.7% each year of his service up to year eight, so while Maxwell will make $103,663 this year, a new mayor would make only $85,993.

Third, the salary schedule is already indexed to the national inflation rate, so the mayor already gets a yearly raise. The salary formula adopted by the City Council in ordinance 2708 gives the mayor a cost of living adjustment (COLA) equal to the Social Security COLA that is based on the national consumer price index. In the last few years, that increase has ranged from 0-5.8%.

Additionally, although his salary is set by ordinance at $101,930 for 2012, Maxwell actually took home $105,360 in 2012, with additional pre-tax salary of $3,414 because he participates in the City’s dual insurance incentive program, where the City receives a health insurance premium rebate for the employee’s eligible dependent not using city insurance. That additional salary essentially did not cost the City money, but it was still additional cash the mayor received in his paycheck.

The Mayor’s Responsibilities

In Anacortes

The mayor of Anacortes is the chief executive of the city. He does not have separate responsibilities as city administrator or as “CEO of the water utility.” Anacortes already employs three other people with supervisory authority over our water utility: the Public Works director at $106,000/year, a water treatment plant manager at $95,000/year, and a water treatment plant supervisor at $83,000/year.

Mayor Maxwell talks a lot about the fact that Anacortes is “unique” in that it operates a water utility. But many jurisdictions, in fact, operate water utilities, including our customers, Oak Harbor and La Conner. In Skagit County, Skagit PUD provides water and delivery to Mount Vernon, Burlington, and Sedro-Woolley. But elsewhere in the state, such as Snohomish County, there are many jurisdictions that both distribute water and operate their own supplies, including Everett, Marysville, Stanwood, Tulalip Reservation, Darrington, Snohomish, Sultan, Gold Bar, and Index.

The City of Spokane, a charter mayor-council city with a budget of $160 million and 200,000 residents, operates not only a regional water utility (the third largest in the state) but also a hydroelectric utility. Spokane pays its mayor $100,008/year.

Forms of Government

Mayor Maxwell is fond of saying that Anacortes has a “strong mayor” form of government. But in fact, there’s no system of government called “strong mayor” by state law.

There are essentially two standard systems that cities can choose from: mayor-council and council-manager. Anacortes has adopted the mayor-council form of government, where the mayor and councilmembers are elected by popular vote, the mayor is the sole executive, and the city council is the legislative body. The vast majority of Washington cities use the mayor-council form of government.

Fewer than a fifth of Washington cities use the council-manager form, where the city council is popularly elected but hires a professional city manager to be the chief administrative officer. A mayor exists in the council-manager form of government, but is elected by the city council from among the members of the city council.

There has been no discussion on the city council that Anacortes change to the council-manager system of government. There has been some discussion of creating a city administrator position, who would report to the mayor like all other employees. That would not be a change in the form of government at all.

A City Administrator

Some people argue that our mayor is doing the work of two people: mayor and city administrator, and so should be paid commensurate with the salary of a city administrator. But we are certainly not getting the value we would get if we had a separate city administrator position.

The City Council can, and should, create a city administrator position to help the mayor manage the city, just as most other mayor-council cities have, including our neighbors Oak Harbor, Burlington, and Sedro-Woolley. Hiring a city administrator allows a mayor to focus on visioning, policy development, and political leadership. Such a city administrator could be a competitively-selected professional with experience outside of Anacortes that could improve the performance of our city government and help move some of our languishing projects forward.

A city administrator wouldn't be a new concept for Anacortes. Although only the City Council can create a real city administrator position, the current mayor has over time properly delegated much city administration to his department heads. Several city employees I’ve spoken with regard the Public Works director and Human Resources director as de facto city administrators. The previous city attorney/planning director was often referred to, at least by outside observers, as city administrator. It’s time to formalize that position, require Council confirmation, and professionalize the way the City does business.

How Should We Set a Mayor’s Salary?

The mayor should not be paid compared to a CEO or executive director. In the United States, we expect our elected officials to serve, at least partially, out of a sense of duty to the public good, and we simply don’t pay equivalent private salaries. Moreover, those private director positions:

  • Are usually paid a negotiated salary, sometimes with pay or bonuses for performance;
  • Are hired after a competitive selection process based on education and qualifications, experience, and demonstrated accomplishment; and
  • Serve at-will and are accountable to, and can be fired by, their boards of directors.

I argue a mayor’s salary should be set based on the following considerations:

  • High enough to attract good candidates for office;
  • High enough to allow the mayor to live comfortably in Anacortes on that income alone;
  • As low as possible to conserve the city’s tax dollars.

Evaluating those factors, I see no reason to increase the salary. The salary for a new mayor under our current schedule, $85,993, is enough to attract three new candidates for mayor this year, each qualified to assume the office. That salary is also enough for a single-income person to live comfortably in Anacortes.

In fact, if we are to make any changes to the mayor’s salary, it ought to be to adopt a single figure (probably $85-95k per year) eliminating the salary schedule that provides bonuses for longevity, and continue to index it to inflation (properly using the U.S. City Average CPI-W). That would allow us to save more than $60,000 over the mayor’s current salary over the next four years, which we can use for other more important things.

We would also save that money if voters elect a new mayor this year.

Comments (1) -

Joe Barnes

August 6, 2013 14:13

Ryan,  many thanks for the excellent research that you do on City matters.  It helps put things in perspective for the rest of us.  Hopefully, we will have a City Council for 2014 that will not be an automatic rubber stamp for the Mayor, i.e. one that will actually do its job for us.

Joe Barnes

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