In Our View: Make the Case for Pay Raise

Vancouver City Council owes taxpayers transparency, deliberation before acting

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Consideration of a raise for city manager Eric Holmes calls for transparency and deliberation by the Vancouver City Council. Members should delay a vote that is expected Monday on the proposal.

At issue is a plan to boost Holmes’ annual pay by about $17,500 — a 7.9 increase to $239,052. This would follow a raise of 14 percent in 2014 and a 5.5 percent boost in 2016 for Holmes, who has been city manager since 2010.

Undoubtedly, that is an important job that requires a steady hand and strong leadership skills. Vancouver has a council-manager form of government in which the council sets policy and the manager oversees the daily operations that carry out that policy. The city of Vancouver has more than 1,100 employees and an annual budget of more than $500 million.

That level of responsibility likely would earn a manager in the private sector more than $239,000 a year, along with generous benefits. But it would be irresponsible to ignore the fact that this is not the private sector and that Holmes’ salary comes from taxpayers. More than any other consideration, councilors must be beholden to those taxpayers.

Because of that, raises for public employees are a frequent point of contention, inevitably generating discussion and often creating strong opposition. City officials were reminded of that last year when a salary commission proposed large pay increases for the mayor and city councilors — raises that eventually were scaled back following much public outcry.

The case of Holmes is different in that the city manager is the only employee hired by the city council, and the only employee to have their salary determined by the council. Because of that, councilors should feel compelled to justify the raise. That is where transparency and deliberation come in.

Convincing the public that one of their employees deserves a 7.9 percent raise that outpaces cost-of-living increases — and that follows generous pay boosts in recent years — can be an arduous task. But it is a necessary one if the council is to maintain trust in government and allow the public to fulfill its role as watchdogs over elected officials.

Rather than rubber-stamping the raise, councilors should allow the public to evaluate the proposal in the proper context. Is it in line with pay raises for other city employees? Are the reasons for the raise transparent? Does the evaluation of Holmes’ performance — an evaluation that began in July — warrant the increase? How does the salary compare to similar public officials?

Some of those questions can be answered. As The Columbian has reported, Tacoma and Yakima are cities with similar council-manager governments; the city manager in Tacoma makes $252,544 a year, while the Yakima manager receives $170,000. Other comparisons show that the CEO of Clark Public Utilities is paid $280,000, and the CEO of the Port of Vancouver receives $202,801.

Those comparisons are helpful, but not definitive. The biggest question is Holmes’ performance, which calls for the council to provide evidence of his successes in managing employees and implementing policies that enhance the quality of life for residents. Holmes can point to the fact that Vancouver is growing and becoming more complex; critics can point to a growing homeless crisis and needed street repairs — not solely Holmes’ purview, but indications of how well the city is operating.

Holmes might well be deserving of another raise. But, first, the city council should take time to convince taxpayers.