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Can Local Elected Officials Reduce Their Own Salaries?

May 15, 2012  by  Pat Mason
Category:  Administrative and Elected Officials Administrative and Elected Officials-County

In these difficult budget times, we have been asked a number of times whether local elected officials may waive all or part of their salaries as a way to financially assist their local government - or just to make a statement, as some of their salaries are pretty low to begin with.  While this likely can be done, there are some legal issues that must be considered.

The overriding legal concern here involves article 11, section 8 of the Washington State Constitution, which prohibits any decrease in the salaries of local elected officials after their election or during their term of office.  This provision makes it illegal for a local governing body to reduce the salaries they have established for these elected positions, unless the effective date of the decrease is delayed until the beginning of the next term of office.

However, there are two possible methods by which elected officials can individually reduce the amount of compensation they receive, despite this constitutional restriction.  The simplest way to accomplish this - though it doesn't actually reduce the amount they receive - is for the elected official to donate all or a part of the salary received back to the local government he or she serves.  The donation would be tax deductible.  This option is legally straightforward because the full salary is actually received - so no constitutional issue there - but it may not be ideal from the viewpoint of the elected official because the income received must still be reported for income tax purposes.

A second option is for the elected official to voluntarily choose to waive a portion or all of the  salary established for the position, so that he or she actually is then paid a lesser amount, or nothing at all.   This approach has the advantage, from the standpoint of the elected official, of the salary not being included as income received for income tax purposes.  Any salary waiver should be in writing.

It must be noted that it is not entirely clear whether a salary waiver of salary would be legally enforceable if the elected official later changes his or her mind and requests the withheld salary to be reimbursed.  We are aware of at least one circumstance recently where an elected official who had voluntarily waived a portion of her salary later, after leaving office, asked that she receive the salary she had waived.  The city denied her request, and, to our knowledge, she has not challenged that denial.

Certain local elected officials, such as port and fire district commissioners, have express statutory authority to waive all or part of their salaries, but city and county elected officials do not. Although MRSC legal staff believe that such a written waiver would be enforceable without statutory authorization, we can’t know for sure until this issue is addressed by the courts or until the state legislature provides clear statutory authorization.

Since there are some legal considerations involved, we do recommend that elected officials who may be interested in waiving all or part of their salaries first consult their local government's legal counsel.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Pat Mason

Pat served as MRSC's Legal Manager and wrote about public records, open public meetings, and just about any other municipal legal issue. He is now retired.



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