Salaries for Elected Officials
Many elected officials serving with Washington local governments are paid, although some are not. This blog discusses how salaries are set for elected officials, how salaries can be changed, and whether an official can request not to be paid.
For most elected officials, salaries are set via ordinance by their legislative bodies. A city council determines the salary for its members and the mayor (see RCW 35.27.130 for towns, RCW 35A.12.070 and RCW 35A.13.040 for code cities, and RCW 35.23.091 for second-class cities).
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 RCW 36.17.020 requires some salaries be set at a specific amount (and no less).
For most special purpose districts, the compensation paid commissioners and/or board members is set by the district and limited in RCW 85.38.075 to stated daily and yearly maximums. Although the statute dates back to 2007, it allows different per diem maximums to be set every five years by the state's Office of Financial Management (OFM), which last made such an adjustment in 2018 when it filed WSR 18-11-088. Until the next adjustment is announced, the per diem rate may not exceed $128/day, with a yearly maximum of $12,288.
Changes to Salaries
Periodically, a legislative body may conclude that the salaries paid to its elected officials should be changed. Article 11, Sec. 8 of the Washington State Constitution prohibits any salary increase or decrease after an election and during the term of office, but Article 30, Sec. 1 restricts this to those officials who set their own salaries (i.e., city and county councilmembers, county commissioners, and special district commissioners).
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 the new salary can go into effect immediately. However, a salary decrease can only go into effect once a term ends.
For those officials who set their own salary (e.g., city and county councilmembers, county commissioners, and special district commissioners), any increase or decrease in salaries may not take effect until their next term of office. 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. The commissioners elected in November would receive the higher salary beginning in January 2023, but any existing commissioner would receive the same (lower) salary in effect at the start of their current term.
Using commissions or ordinances to enact a salary increase
While salaries are typically set by the legislative body, state law allows for the creation of a salary commission to set salaries (see RCW 35.21.015 and RCW 36.17.024), thus distancing elected officials from the process. Once a salary commission establishes salaries levels (or changes the levels) for elected officials, these are still subject to referendum if the jurisdiction has adopted the powers of referendum. If no referendum is filed within 30 days, the new salaries can be effective immediately.
If the salary commission determines a salary should be decreased, this decrease can only go into effect after an elected official’s term ends (see Article 11, Sec. 8 of the state constitution). Many jurisdictions have elected to use salary commissions, and below are just a few sample code provisions related to establishing a commission:
- Pierce County Municipal Code Ch. 2.100
- Sequim Municipal Code Sec. 2.48.010
- Spokane Valley Municipal Code Sec. 2.10.020
- Sultan Municipal Code Ch. 2.07
- Whatcom County Municipal Code Ch. 2.22
Another way local governments can get around the prohibition on increasing salaries is to create code provisions to apply automatic annual salary increases for elected officials, such as Bellingham Municipal Code Sec 3.12.010 and Richland Municipal Code Sec. 2.32.040.
What happens to salaries when a vacancy is filled?
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 the new official take the “old” salary or are they eligible for the new and pending 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 increases in the salary of an elected official applies to the term of office rather than to the individual who is holding the office (see AGO 1999 No. 1).
May an Elected Official Refuse a Salary?
Sometimes elected officials will state a willingness to refuse all or part of their salary. While this likely can be done, there are some legal issues that must be considered. 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.
However, there are two possible methods by which elected officials can individually reduce the amount of compensation they receive, despite the constitutional restriction. The simplest way to accomplish this is for the elected official to donate all or a part of their salary back to the local government. The donation would be tax deductible, but income received must still be reported by the elected official for income tax purposes and all relevant deductions taken out.
A second option might be for the official to formally waive all or part of their salary. Since the official would not be paid, there would not be any taxable income flowing from the refused salary. Code provisions can support this approach. For example, Chelan County Municipal Code Sec 1.264.030 allows an elected official to voluntarily receive a salary less than that established for their position.
Salary waivers should be agreed to voluntarily, captured in writing, and done in accordance with any existing policies. Any elected official interested in waiving all or part of their salary should consult with their local government’s legal counsel. Even with all this, it is not certain that a salary waiver is enforceable. MRSC is aware of one instance when an elected official voluntarily waived a portion of salary, and after leaving office, asked to be paid the portion that was waived.
Setting and/or changing salaries for an elected official is dependent on the elected official’s position, the type of local government they serve, and whether it does/does not employ an independent salary commission. While decreases in salaries are prohibited after the election of an official or during their term of office, local governments do have some flexibility in increasing salaries during terms.
Cities, towns, and counties may find AWC’s annual Salary and Benefit Survey a helpful tool when determining salary levels. It is a comprehensive review of salaries and benefits provided to Washington staff and elected officials, providing comparable data across Washington cities and counties of all sizes.
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.