It’s Not Too Early to Start Thinking About Elected Officials’ Salaries

The fall election is still a ways off and the 2013 budget won’t be on the agenda for some time.  Nevertheless, this might be a good time to start thinking about the salaries your jurisdiction pays its elected officials.  Why?  Under the state constitution, there are restrictions as to when some elected officials’ salaries may be increased, or decreased.

Article 11, section 8 of the state constitution prohibits the increase or decrease of an elected official’s salary after his or her election or during his or her term of office; this prohibition, however, applies only to officials who set their own salary, such as city and county councilmembers and county commissioners.  See Const. art XXX, § 1.  Consequently, any increase or decrease in the salaries of those elected officials who set their own compensation may not take effect until their next term of office.  So, for example, if a board of county commissioners concludes that the salary of its members should be increased, it will need to complete action on raising those salaries prior to this November’s election (November 6).  The commissioners elected in November would receive the higher salary beginning in January 2013, and the other position(s) would receive the higher salary in 2015.   The same rule applies to a decrease in their salaries.  (There is, however, a way to immediately increase a councilmember’s or commissioner’s salary during a current term, as discussed below.)

The salary of other elected officials, those who do not set their own salary, such as a city or town mayor or a county assessor or auditor, may be increased at any time, and they may benefit from the new salary as soon as the new salary goes into effect.  However, the salaries of those officials may be decreased only prior to their election.

Even with the constitutional prohibition discussed above, there is now a way to increase the salaries of councilmembers and commissioners during their present term of office.  Legislation adopted in 2001 authorized the setting of elected officials’ salaries by a local salary commission. See RCW 35.21.015 and RCW 36.17.024.  If a city or county chooses to create a salary commission, the elected officials are paid the salaries established by the commission, although those salaries are subject to referendum. If no referendum is filed within 30 days, the new salaries can be effective immediately, except for salaries the commission determines should be decreased.

Incumbent elected officials may not have their salaries decreased during their term of office, even by a salary commission.  Though, due to the financial difficulties local governments have faced in recent years, some elected officials have voluntarily elected to decline or waive all or part of their salaries.  See the discussion of this issue in the May 15 blog post, “Can Local Elected Officials Reduce Their Own Salaries?” by Pat Mason.

This article is not suggesting any particular action (increase or decrease) on the setting of salaries.  That is a question of policy (and, perhaps, finances) for local elected officials.  However, if there is wish to change salaries for 2013, this might be a good time to start thinking about making the change.

About Paul Sullivan

Paul has worked with local governments since 1974 and has authored MRSC publications on local elections, ordinances, and general local government operation. He also provides training on the Open Public Meetings Act.
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