Last month, as the city's budget headed into a meltdown, Mayor Greg Nickels's office pushed legislation that would have given huge pay raises to two of the city's top officials—and opened the door to higher pay for many top-ranking city employees in the future.
The legislation would have created a new position at the city called "Executive 5" with a higher maximum pay than the current top position, Executive 4. (Every position at the city has a minimum and maximum potential salary, although the mayor can ask to pay people more.) Creating the new position would have allowed the city to pay police chief Gil Kerlikowske and Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) director Chuck Clarke as much as $232,213—an increase Nickels said was necessary to keep the two men's salaries competitive. At the time, Nickels assured the city council that he would only use the new position to boost the pay of Clarke and Kerlikowske; however, once the new position was created, the mayor would be free to bump up anyone he pleased.
Although the city council rejected the mayor's request—noting, in a memo, that Kerlikowske's salary was actually 14 percent above the market average—the city has ended up handing out a number of substantial raises anyway. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of employees at the top pay level (Executive 4) doubled—from 11 in 2006 to 22 in 2008 (12 were promoted; one left). That's not an insignificant increase: While Executive 3s make between $101,100 and $168,810, Executive 4s can make as much as $196,794.
While the raises have only cost the city about $30,000 so far, the newly reclassified employees' potential salary increases are significant and could eventually amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In a year when the city council was proposing to save money by eliminating programs that keep kids off the streets and help homeless people find permanent housing, the raises look a bit unseemly.
Some city-hall observers have speculated that the mayor asked for so many new Executive 4s, in part, to prove the need for a new Executive 5 position. Mayoral spokesman Alex Fryer denies this, noting that most of the employees promoted were in the police and fire departments, which are semiautonomous. (Seven of the twelve employees who were promoted work for SPD, four work for SFD, and one works for the parks department.) Fryer says the mayor does not intend to push for a new Executive 5 position in the future, but blames the departure of SPU director Clarke, who left last month to become head of the Cascade Water Alliance, on his "uncompetitive" salary.
Fire department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick says SFD director Gregory Dean approved the reclassifications "to help retain experienced workers"; the Seattle Police Department did not return a call for comment.