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Seattle City Light Chief Executive Officer Jorge Carrasco, already the highest-paid city employee at nearly $245,000 a year, could get a raise of almost $120,000 under a new pay scale approved by a City Council committee Wednesday.

Mayor Ed Murray requested the new higher pay range of up to $364,000, but a spokesman said Carrasco would get about $305,000 in a salary hike that would be retroactive to January.

Murray’s chief of staff told Education and Governance Committee members that it was important to maintain high-quality leadership at the utility, which generates $800 million in revenue and employs about 1,800 people.

“Jorge has a strong track record of performance here. We do compete nationally for department heads. We want to continue to have his leadership,” said Chris Gregorich.

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The request set off a debate on the committee, with socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant questioning whether any city employee should make so much money.

“This is a city-elected government, not a private corporation. We have to be setting the tone, not letting the private market set the tone for us,” Sawant said.

She noted that the City Council on Monday approved raising the minimum wage citywide to $15 an hour in the coming years, in part, she said, because council members didn’t agree that market forces justified poverty wages.

Sawant also objected to the raise being retroactive, saying the $15 minimum-wage hike would be phased in over seven years.

The City Light executive salary is paid by utility customers and does not come from the city’s general fund.

Tim Burgess, the chair of the governance committee, said salaries are based on the city’s need to attract and retain high-quality employees.

“We want the best possible people to be working in city government,” he said after the hearing. The full council will vote on the pay increase June 16. Four council members attended the committee hearing and approved the pay hike, 3-1.

Carrasco was a finalist for an Arizona public-power job in 2011 that paid between $500,000 and $700,000. Last August, then-Mayor Mike McGinn requested that Carrasco’s pay range be raised. The City Council did not act on the request.

The city’s director of personnel, Susan Coskey, told the committee members Wednesday that other public-power managers earn significantly more than Carrasco. For example, the head of the Snohomish County PUD, with lower revenues and fewer employees, is expected to make $367,000 this year. The manager of the Tacoma Public Utility is expected to make $319,000.

Coskey said the median salary nationally for comparably sized public utilities is $367,000. She said the city identified the City Light executive position as deserving of a higher pay range because of the complexity of the business, the level of responsibility and the competition with the private market.

Carrasco was appointed in 2004 by then-Mayor Greg Nickels after several years of financial instability and employee unrest at the utility. City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who chaired the City Light committee when Carrasco was reconfirmed in 2008, said the magnitude of the utility’s operations, including billions’ worth of dams, transmission lines and power stations, justifies the higher pay range.

“He’s a very effective leader in a very specialized field,” Harrell said.

Six City Light executives are at the top of the city’s payroll, according to city records from January. Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean is seventh at $201,377. Seattle Public Utilities head Ray Hoffman is eighth, making nearly $198,000 a year.

The Governance Committee on Wednesday also approved a higher pay range for the new police chief of up to $250,000, from the current $215,000.

Under the proposed pay- hike legislation, the council sets a pay range and the mayor decides the annual salary.

Lynn Thompson: or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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