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Salaries for Elected Officials


April 12, 2018 by Paul Sullivan
Category: Administrative and Elected Officials , Administrative and Elected Officials-County

Salaries for Elected Officials

If you perform work, it’s always nice to be paid. Many elected officials are paid, although some are not. This blog discusses how salaries are set, how they can be changed, and whether an elected official can request not to be paid.

Setting Salaries

For most elected officials, salaries are set by their legislative bodies. A city council determines the salary for its members and the mayor (see RCW 35A.12.070 and RCW 35A.13.040 for code cities, RCW 35.23.091 for second class cities, and RCW 35.27.130 for towns).

County officials’ salaries are set by the county legislative body. However, unlike for cities and towns, a county legislative body is more limited in its discretion to set salaries since state law requires some salaries be set at an amount not less than that set by statute (see RCW 36.17.020).

For most special districts, the compensation paid commissioners is set by the district and limited by statute to stated daily and yearly maximums (see RCW 85.38.075). Although salary amounts were set by statute in 2007, the statute allows different per diem maximums to be set every five years by the state's Office of Financial Management. That office last made such an adjustment in 2013 when it filed WSR 13-12-078. Until the next adjustment is announced, the per diem rate may not exceed $114, with a yearly maximum of $10,944. When a board sets its compensation within the parameters of the regulation, the new rates would not go into effect until the next term of office.

While salaries are typically set by the city or county legislative body, state law does allow for the creation of a salary commission to set salaries (see RCW 35.21.015 and RCW 36.17.024). If a salary commission is created, the elected officials are paid the salaries established by the commission, although the salaries are subject to referendum. If no referendum is filed within 30 days, the new salaries can be effective immediately, except if the commission determines a salary should be decreased, since no decrease is allowed during a term.

Changes to Salaries

Periodically a legislative body may conclude that the salaries paid its elected officials should be changed and, typically, increased. Article 11, section 8 of the Washington Constitution, however, prohibits any salary increase or decrease after an election and during the term of office for those officials who set their own salary. Accordingly, the prohibition only applies to city and county councilmembers, county commissioners, and special district commissioners (see Washington State Const. art. 30, sec. 1).

A mayor’s salary, on the other hand, can be increased anytime, provided the mayor does not vote to break a tie on the proposed increase. An elected official’s salary may not be decreased in any case after his or her election or during the term of office.

If a city or county has created a salary commission, any salary set by the commission may be implemented during an elected official’s term since, in that instance, the salary is not set by the elected official. The prohibition against salary decreases during a term also applies to changes made by a salary commission.

Since a salary increase will generally only be effective for an official who is newly elected or reelected, what happens if someone fills a vacant position by appointment during the current term or by election for the remainder of a term? Does he or she take the “old” salary, or any new and pending increased salary? In this case, the appointed person receives the same salary as the person who previously held the position during the current term. The constitutional prohibition against increase in the salary of a councilmember applies to the term of office rather than to the individual who is holding the office (see State ex rel Wyrick v. City of Ritzville and AGO 1999 No. 1).

May an Elected Official Refuse His or Her Salary?

Sometimes, when budgets are tight, elected officials will state a willingness to refuse all or part of their salary. This is okay, isn’t it? Maybe. But as indicated above, the constitution prohibits decreases in salary after an official’s election and during the term of office. It would be illegal to reduce the salaries established for elected positions unless the effective date of the decrease is delayed until the beginning of the next term of office. Withholding all or part of a salary of a current officeholder could be considered an illegal salary decrease.

Nevertheless, a reduction might still be possible. The simplest option would be for the elected official to receive his or her salary and then donate it back to the local government. However, the donated salary would still be taxable income and unless the official itemizes for tax purposes, there would be no tax benefit.

A second possible approach might be for the official to formally waive all or part of his or her salary. Since the official would not be paid, there would not be any taxable income flowing from the refused salary. It is not certain, though, that a salary waiver is enforceable. MRSC is aware of one instance when an elected official voluntarily waived a portion of salary and then, after leaving office, asked to be paid the salary that was waived.

Some special district officials, such as fire and port district commissioners, have express statutory authority to waive all or part of their salaries (see RCW 52.14.010 and RCW 53.12.265). For cities and counties, however, until there is an appellate court decision addressing the issue or legislation specifically authorizing a salary waiver, there is uncertainty about the enforceability of a such a waiver for their elected officials.

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post, please comment below or email Paul Sullivan at psullivan@mrsc.org.

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.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Paul Sullivan

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