The Metropolitan King County Council will likely trim its members' annual pay raises to match concessions made by most county employees.

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The Metropolitan King County Council will likely trim its members’ annual pay raises to match concessions made by most county employees.

Council members now get 3 percent yearly pay increases, established by a 1987 law — though they’ve given back some or all their pay raises to the county in recent years. Their salaries this year are $135,525, higher than counterparts in Pierce and Snohomish counties, as well as the Seattle City Council.

Under a proposal that appears to have the votes to pass at the council’s Monday meeting, the nine members would get raises of either 3 percent, or 90 percent of the local inflation rate — whichever is less. A similar model translates into a 1.63 percent cost-of-living adjustment for most county employees this year.

The vast majority of county workers agreed to no cost-of-living increases last year, and increases in the next three years that would be 90 percent of the inflation rate.

“Next year county employees, by and large, will get 1.6 percent. I think ours should be the same,” said primary sponsor Joe McDermott, a first-term member from West Seattle.

The state constitution prohibits elected officials from altering their own pay during their current terms. Because council members’ four-year terms are staggered, McDermott’s plan would affect five council members in 2014 and the remaining four in 2016. At that point, all council salaries would be equalized.

All council members, with the exception of Larry Phillips, donated their scheduled raises of $3,832 last year back to the county’s general fund. Phillips donated half of his, or $1,916.

In 2010, three council members gave back all or some of their 3 percent raises: Bob Ferguson returned $3,721, Jane Hague donated $2,480, and Kathy Lambert gave back $1,447.

King County Executive Dow Constantine gave back to the general fund his 2011 cost-of-living increase of $5,749. The county charter sets the executive’s pay at 1.5 times the council’s salary; Constantine’s pay this year is $203,288.

Higher pay than peers

Even with a cut in their pay, Metropolitan King County Council members earn more than peers in neighboring counties.

The Snohomish County Council’s pay is set every two years by a citizen commission. Council pay has been frozen since 2010 at $102,779.

In Pierce County, council members voted last year to eliminate 3 percent annual raises, leaving their salaries at $107,602. Votes by a citizen panel and the council will be required to reinstitute raises.

At the Seattle City Council, members’ terms are staggered and so are their salaries. Five members this year will get $119,976; four members will earn $117,534. Four years after their election or re-election, council members receive raises based on the local inflation rate. Those increases are projected to average about 2 percent annually over the next four years, according to council forecasts.

The County Council’s regional duties have grown in areas such as transit and sewage treatment, a result of the 1992 merger of King County and Metro, the former regional government. But that increased workload has been “balancing out,” Phillips acknowledged, with city annexations that have decreased the number of constituents in unincorporated areas, where county government provides more services than it does within city limits. The percentage of the county’s residents living in unincorporated areas had dwindled from 40 percent in 1989 to just under 15 percent last year.

Committee backed plan

McDermott’s proposal was approved in a 5-2 committee vote last month. “I believe I have the votes to pass it,” he said.

Council Chairman Larry Gossett, who voted against the measure in committee, said he may well support the final version. But if the idea is achieving equity with county employees, Gossett said, council members’ annual raises have lagged behind those of the council’s support staff in recent years. In 2006, for example, most of the support staff received both cost-of-living and step increases that averaged a combined 7.2 percent, Gossett pointed out.

Phillips, who also opposed McDermott’s proposal in a Dec. 12 committee vote, said he, too, was likely to vote for the final version.

Submitted at the council’s last 2011 meeting, McDermott’s initial proposal lacked a key amendment equalizing all council salaries in 2016, Phillips said. “I think we just want to get it right,” he said.

Phillips cited several reasons for giving back only half of his 2011 raise. He said he was unhappy paying federal taxes on income he didn’t receive when he gave back part of his salary, and he took considerably less car allowance, $912, than he could have. (Councilmembers’ car allowances ranged from zero to $5,512, and some use county vehicles instead.)

He also stressed that McDermott’s proposal would save a small amount of money, about $12,000 a year, if the inflation rate is 2 percent.

But equity and savings aren’t really the thrust of his proposal, McDermott says.

“It’s about leadership,” he said, and it’s “entirely appropriate for the council to step up and recognize the sacrifice” of county employees who have made pay concessions.

Hague praised McDermott for pushing the proposal, “an issue that is not without its controversy.” She said she’d like the county to create a commission to “take a look at our salary levels in a balanced and comprehensive way.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com