When the idea of pay increases for the Liberty Lake mayor and City Council first surfaced at City Hall last year, a looming $700,000 deficit and reductions at the municipal library and golf course were not part of the agenda.
These days, Liberty Lake leaders are doing their best to help disgruntled residents understand the history surrounding the proposed salary hikes.
Community frustration was again evident at the Nov. 16 City Council meeting which included a public hearing on the 2011 municipal budget. While Mayor Wendy Van Orman and council members discussed cuts to various city services, various citizens publicly questioned the timing of pay adjustments that would see Van Orman’s monthly compensation go from $750 to $1,250 and council salaries jump from $250 to $400.
The mayor and City Council reiterated that they are seeking a waiver on the proposed increases – or would donate the money to charity if the waiver cannot be secured. State code currently requires a city to adhere to the recommendations of an appointed salary commission.
A trio of citizens formed the first such commission in Liberty Lake in January of this year. Don Millikan was part of a committee that researched salary structures for towns and cities throughout Washington.
“We tried to look at similar communities across the state,” he said.
The study did not include extremes at either end of the curve, such as jurisdictions like Poulsbo that pay its mayor $5,450 a month or Normandy Park where the mayor and council members do not draw a salary at all.
The commission’s research also took into account a time study that included the average number of hours city leaders spend with responsibilities such as civic duties, committee meetings, district obligations, municipal research and other areas.
Some towns with comparable populations to Liberty Lake such as Burlington compensate their mayor to the tune of $2,000 a month with council members earning $800. Millikan said the final recommendations of the commission – which were presented to the Liberty Lake City Council in May – came in slightly above the state average.
Millikan said the current uproar from residents is “disappointing” especially considering that all the commission’s discussions and presentations were part of a public discourse.
“We never had anyone attend our meetings,” he said.
The Liberty Lake mayor and City Council have not received any adjustments to pay since the city incorporated in August 2001. Judi Owens, one of three remaining members of the original governing board, said there was a time before incorporation when elected leaders were earning $40 a month.
“Early on, we would laugh that we were probably making 10 cents an hour,” Owens said. “It wasn’t even enough to cover the gas to get to the meetings.”
Owens and others on the council reaffirmed on Nov. 16 that they opposed increases to pay considering the current economic conditions in Liberty Lake. When Council Member Cris Kaminskas asked Van Orman to clarify her stance on the salary adjustment, the mayor made it clear that she would stand by the council.
“I took this job for $750 a month and I intend to keep working for $750 a month,” Van Orman said.
Liberty Lake’s neighbors to the west have experienced similar controversy over compensation as a City Hall appointee.
In June 2004, the city of Spokane Valley appointed a commission to research salaries and make recommendations. That August, the group proposed an increase that would have put monthly pay at $1,200 for mayor; $1,000 for deputy mayor and $900 for council members. In November 2005, the proposition to boost mayor and council earnings was voted down by Valley residents in the general election by nearly 67 percent.
The following year, a new salary commission was appointed. This time, recommendations came in at $975 for mayor and $750 for council. Those numbers were approved and implemented in January 2007 and remain the same today.
In Millwood, a town of just over 1,700, Mayor Dan Mork earns $600 per month. Representatives of the City Council are compensated per meeting at a rate of $40.
Liberty Lake Council Member Josh Beckett, who was elected last November and serves on the municipal finance committee, said he averages 10 to 12 hours a week of work in his role with the city.
“For what we get paid monthly, that’s not even minimum wage,” Beckett said.
Like his fellow council members, Beckett emphasized that he is not lobbying for any shifts to pay in 2011.
“It’s important for people to realize we’re opposed to this,” he said. “The notion that we’re doing this for financial gain is frustrating and inaccurate.”