Council: Smaller Districts Require Larger Staffs

UPDATE on Tuesday, April 26: By an 8-1 vote, the council approved one new staffer for each council member yesterday, with only budget chair Tim Burgess voting “no.” The staffers will be funded this year with approximately $375,000 left over from 2015; the next full year of funding, which Burgess estimated at about half a million dollars (less than my back-of-the-envelope estimate of $1 million, below), will be funded through the budget process in November.
Calling the 33 percent staffing increase a merely “administrative” proposal yesterday, council president Bruce Harrell said the “higher level of expectation on constituent services” under the new district system justified the additional spending.
Freshman council member Lisa Herbold (D1), who staffed former council member Nick Licata for 17 years, added that while requesting more staff for a smaller geographical area (previously, council members served the entire city) might seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense because council members have to be more directly responsive to constituents. “In the past, when a constituent would write to a council member about an issue that was not in that particular council member’s committee’s bailiwick, the council member could refer that constituent inquiry to the council member who was chair of that committee,” Herbold said. “We can’t do that now. … So we’re really doing sort of triage to get the public good answers on many many more issues than we previously have.” Herbold’s fellow freshman council member Deborah Juarez (D5) echoed that sentiment, rattling off 20 or so issues she had to deal with as a representative of North Seattle.
Contacted after the vote yesterday, Burgess pointed to a 2014 city audit of similar-size cities with district systems, including Austin and San Francisco, finding that most district council members elsewhere get by with two or three staffers. And, he noted that when district elections were on the ballot, proponents said it would not result in additional cost to the city–an expense that, he notes, may not be sustainable in thin budget years, which are cyclical and inevitable.

“That’s the primary reason I opposed this: I don’t think it’s sustainable and I don’t think it’s needed,” Burgess told me. “We’re four months into our new district system, and making a significant decision like this based on just four months of experience is not wise. I think that’s why the city auditor’s report of 2014 is so insightful–these are cities that have been doing this for a while, and they recognized that they didn’t need extra staff or in-district offices.”

 Burgess says that when the staffing proposal comes to his committee, he’ll attempt to send the money for council staff back to the general fund or “repurpose it to spend on something else,” like the United Way’s Parent-Child Home Program, which supports childhood literacy for two- and-three-year-olds. Burgess acknowledges, however, that his quixotic push to repurpose the money now is “a losing battle.”
Tomorrow, the city council plans to pass legislation creating positions for nine new legislative assistants, one for each council member, bringing the total number of legislative assistant salaries for each office to four. (Council members can divide up those salaries however they want, for example by hiring multiple part-time aides, but council members’ budgets will increase to add the new full-time equivalent position.)
The reason for the change, according to a staff report, is that council members have more work to do now that they represent districts, instead of the entire city. (This is the first council under the new system, in which seven council members represent geographic districts, and two are elected at large). “The additional
staff support provided by the new positions in this ordinance will be used to address the increased workload resulting from this switch to district elections,” the staff report says.
The legislation doesn’t identify how much money it will cost to hire nine new aides; that will be addressed in the budget process this fall. A quick back-of-the-napkin tally, based on current legislative assistant compensation and benefits (say, $80,000 each plus $40,000 each for benefits), puts the cost of these new positions at roughly a million dollars.
The council will discuss this proposal in its meeting on Monday, where I think they should consider two important questions. First, since district representatives serve a fraction of the population each council member served when all nine seats were elected at large, what justification is there for bumping up staff sizes by a third? Why does representing one-seventh of the population require a larger staff than representing the entire city?
And second, if the point of adding money in the budget for nine new legislative staffers is to deal with the increased workload under the district system, why do the two at-large positions, currently filled by Lorena González and Tim Burgess, also require additional staffers? Why would the people who don’t even represent districts need more staff to deal with districts?
The council will take up the proposal at its full council meeting on Monday at 2pm.

4 thoughts on “Council: Smaller Districts Require Larger Staffs”

  1. Pretty hefty salaries, I’d say. If they paid them half as much they could get two each.

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