Pay cut narrowly passes for future council members

October 4, 2012

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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Current members of the Newcastle City Council will take a pay cut, should they decide to run again after their terms expire, according to an ordinance the council passed at its Sept. 18 meeting.

The ordinance, which passed with a 4-3 vote, will lower councilmember salaries from $700 a month to $500 a month. The mayor’s position will also be reduced from $800 a month to $600 a month.

Under state law, salaries of municipal officers cannot be increased or decreased during an election or during a term of office, so the change will not become effective until the expiration of current councilmembers’ terms.

Councilmen Bill Erxleben, Gordon Bisset, Steve Buri and Mayor Rich Crispo voted in favor of the salary decrease, while Councilwoman Carol Simpson, Councilman John Dulcich and Deputy Mayor Lisa Jensen voted against the ordinance.

Crispo argued that while the council asks city staff members to make sacrifices in terms of merit pay and other considerations, it was important for the council to make sacrifices as well.

“I do believe it’s important to set the message from the top,” he said. “I mean, you can’t ask people that are reporting to you to do something different than you’re willing to do yourself.”

Jensen said she voted against the ordinance because she hopes to see more diversity on the council and for some, she argued, the salary might be a factor in whether someone chooses to get involved in local government.

“No disrespect to this council, but we don’t have a lot of diversity, other than in age,” she said. “I think whatever we can do to encourage more involvement, I think it’s better, and it benefits the city and it gives greater representation.”

Simpson agreed with Jensen, saying she doesn’t want a lower salary to deter residents from participating in their government, a key component of a healthy city.

“One aspect of whether this city goes forward as a successful city, that I look at, is not so much based on how much money the city has, whether the city budget is going into the red, it’s whether or not there are people who are willing to run the city, to run for City Council, to serve on the boards and commissions,” she said.

Erxleben, who initially said he would vote against the proposition because he felt it didn’t reduce the salaries far enough, said that other cities with salaries lower than Newcastle’s are still able to fill their council chambers with competent individuals.

“You know, Mercer Island pays its councilmembers $100 a month and it gets good people to run,” he said. “Take a look at our Planning Commission. We don’t even pay them and we get good people to work hard on our Planning Commission.”

Bisset said he approved of the ordinance because it would bring the councilmembers’ $8,400 a year salary more in line with other comparable cities.

“It’s more of an attempt to say we understand,” he said. “We’ve been trying to hold the line on staff salaries, and we’re going to make this fairly small sacrifice, but when you look at the other councils they are more in the $6,000 range.”

Dulcich said the measure was more of a “feel-good” proposition, since it won’t affect anyone at the table. He encouraged those voting in favor of the ordinance to take the pay cut immediately to accrue instant savings.

“My thought is this, and I hate to do this because it looks bad to vote against it because it’s sort of a feel-good thing, ‘Look what we’re doing,’ but it’s not going to affect anyone sitting at the table,” he said. “So I will say, I have no problem voting against this and I would encourage the people voting in the affirmative to immediately start taking the reduction. I think that would look really good.”

Buri said the timing of the ordinance was important, so as not to make the decision based on politics.

“The reason for doing it now is that it’s not political,” he said. “It’s a decision the council can make absent knowing what people’s plans are, what people’s motivations are.”

When the decrease takes effect, councilmember salaries will decrease from $8,400 a year to $6,000 a year, while the mayor’s salary will go from $9,600 to $7,200.

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