Honolulu’s Salary Commission is recommending raises of 8 percent for many of the city’s top officials – a rate that’s almost five times the annual inflation rate.
That might seem like a steep increase, but for many of the positions — such as the police and fire chiefs and Honolulu City Council members — salaries would still lag far behind those of their counterparts in mainland cities of comparable size.
In San Francisco, where the cost of living is comparable to Honolulu, the chief of the Fire Department earns a base salary of $301,561. Honolulu’s fire chief currently makes about half of that.
Similarly, San Francisco’s top cop earns $305,594. Honolulu’s police chief earns $151,632.
It isn’t just a question of San Francisco being a wealthy city. Even in Detroit — a city of about 700,000 people that filed for bankruptcy in 2013 — the police chief earns nearly $100,000 more than his Honolulu counterpart.
The salaries are independent of other compensation — such as pensions, other benefits and perks — which can vary greatly between cities, but Honolulu’s Salary Commission doesn’t factor such things into its recommendations.
The commission must still give final approval to the proposed raises later this month, before sending them to the City Council for consideration. The salary increases, if approved, would also apply to the mayor and his managing directors, department heads, the prosecuting attorney and his deputies, the medical examiner and the Royal Hawaiian band director.
Sara Buehler, the commission’s chair, said numerous factors went into determining the new salary recommendation, including the cost of living on Oahu, inflation, the position’s scope of responsibilities, and salaries on the neighbor islands and in similar mainland cities.
“I understand the sticker shock of 8 percent,” Buehler said. “At the same time we are mandated to pay salaries commensurate with (the work).”
The commission is aware that the proposed salaries still fall below — and sometimes very far below — those of similar cities, she said, but she noted that larger raises probably wouldn’t be politically palatable.
When Councilman Ron Menor served as a state senator and representative he would have seven to eight months off each year when the Legislature wasn’t in session.
This allowed him to supplement his salary through his law practice.
But since being elected to the City Council, he says he’s been too busy to practice law.
“I served for many years in the state Legislature, and I can tell you that the responsibilities that a City Council member has to deal with are far greater than the responsibilities that I had to carry on as a state legislator,” he said. “This really is a full-time job. We have heavy responsibilities, not just because our districts are much larger, but we deal with the issues people are concerned about on a daily basis.”
Menor, and other council members interviewed by Civil Beat, agree that they juggle a full-time workload. The City Council meets throughout the year, unlike the Legislature. However, technically it’s a part-time position, according to the ordinance that created the City Council — and council members are paid accordingly.
Their annual salary is $52,446, about $3,000 less than state lawmakers. The Salary Commission has suggested boosting this by 8 percent to $56,642.
But this still pales in comparison to other cities. In San Francisco, council members earn nearly double, about $105,000 a year. In Seattle they earn $119,876.
In San Jose, council members earn $81,000. That’s the equivalent of earning $90,000 in Honolulu, according to CNN’s cost of living calculator.
Buehler said that part of the reason why Honolulu City Council members’ salaries are so low, in addition to the part-time status, is that the City Council votes down their own raises year after year — out of fear that there would be political repercussions.
The salary commission is able to look at salaries objectively, she said, but council members “are very aware of the fact that if they approve a raise for themselves, they might not get elected next time.”
City Council members haven’t received a raise in five years. Those first two years, the Salary Commission didn’t recommend increases because of the poor economy, said Buehler.
In rejecting their raises, City Council members are effectively taking salary cuts every year because their earnings aren’t keeping up with inflation.
The relatively low salaries do save taxpayers money and the lack of raises prevents council members from getting any flack for boosting their own pay, but there are drawbacks. Such low-level salaries likely dissuade some top talent from running for the City Council, which wields power over important issues facing the island.
Low salaries also encourage council members to take on second jobs to get by in one of the most expensive cities in the nation.
Council Chair Ernie Martin has a law practice, for instance, and Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi helps run her family’s real estate business.
“I can’t afford to live on this salary,” said Kobayashi, who laughed about her staff earning more than she does.
Even on Maui and Kauai, council members are better paid even though they have a much smaller constituency. On Maui the pay is $76,475 and on Kauai council members earn $56,781.
Many residents of the islands work two or three jobs to get by, but when it comes to the City Council, Councilman Joey Manahan noted, it can create conflicts of interest.
“If you did have a second job, that could conflict with some of the issues that could affect, potentially, the decisions that are made at the City Council level,” he said.
Cities like San Diego prohibit council members from taking any job that would conflict with their elected duties.
Despite their relatively low pay, Honolulu City Council members are reluctant to go along with the 8 percent salary hike recommendation — even though it could be looked at as compensating for a half-decade with no increase.
Kobayashi and Menor said they might consider 4 percent.
“Somehow it is hard to accept a pay raise when we are trying to find money for so many things,” said Kobayashi, who chairs the Council’s Budget Committee.
Menor agreed. “My concern is based on the fact that the city is still facing budgetary constraints in terms of the difficult times we are having in finding money for important programs and services,” he said.
Honolulu’s City Council is not alone in repeatedly rejecting its own pay raises.
San Diego’s salary commission finally got fed up this year after its City Council rejected a proposed raise for 10 consecutive years. During that time, the cost of living has increased 27 percent, as the commission noted in a February 2014 report.
So instead of recommending that San Diego City Council salaries increase from $75,386 to $105,310 this year, the commission said it wasn’t going to bother.
The “salary setting commission believes that any recommended pay increase at this time would simply be politicized by the City Council and would take the focus away from the real dysfunction here, which is the fact that Council members vote on their own pay, a gross conflict of interest,” the commission wrote.
Instead, San Diego’s commission recommended a charter amendment that would prohibit council members from having any say in their own salaries.
Kirk Caldwell is also up for an 8 percent raise this year, which would boost the mayor’s salary to $153,239. But he too has rejected a pay increase. He currently earns $129,607 because he rejected a prior raise and voluntarily reduced his own salary by about $12,000.
But in addition to his mayoral salary, Caldwell is paid between $200,000 and $299,999 as a director of Territorial Savings Bank, according to the financial disclosure form that he filed with the city. He also collects a state pension of between $10,000 and $24,999 a year and his wife, Donna Tanoue, earns between $700,000 and $799,999 as Vice Chair of Bank of Hawaii.
Mayoral salaries for similar cities varied widely, ranging from a low of about $100,000 in San Diego to a high of $271,000 in San Francisco.
Chris Takashige directs one of the city’s most important agencies, the Department of Design and Construction. He’s responsible for overseeing the planning, design and construction of the city’s capital improvement projects, such as roads, parks and wastewater systems.
Takashige, along with other city department heads, earns $121,896.
However, six of his staff earn more than him, with one employee earning as much as $139,736.
“It’s an awkward situation,” said Buehler, of having your staff earn more than you.
The salary commission has proposed boosting the salaries of directors and deputy directors of city departments by 8 percent, in part, to help reestablish the salary hierarchy. Ten other departments have employees who also earn more than their directors and deputy directors.
Buehler said the proposed hikes are also aimed at making the positions more competitive with the private sector where people can earn more.
“We have a situation where we need to consider many different factors,” she said. “One is that we want to pay our top department heads in city salaries that will lure them away from the private sector.”
There are significant perks to city employment, however. Fringe benefits can amount to an additional 60 percent of an employee’s salary, including 21 vacation days and 21 sick days a year, health coverage and pension benefits.
The commission suggested more moderate increases for a few of the positions, including a 2 percent raise for the Royal Hawaiian Band director and medical examiner. The medical examiner’s salary was bumped up from $200,000 to $250,000 last year after being vacant for four years.
The City Council has discretion over which proposed salary increases it approves. Any salary hike would go into effect in July. You can read the full list of proposed salaries here.
Civil Beat compared the salaries of Honolulu’s mayor, City Council members, police and fire chiefs and medical examiner with those of San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, San Jose and Detroit. A few of the salaries weren’t comparable or were not available, and so aren’t included in the chart. San Francisco’s salaries are for the 2013 fiscal year. The figures are for base salaries and do not include other compensation. The salaries for Honolulu are what employees are currently being paid and do not include proposed raises. The mayor’s salary, however, is the salary associated with that position — Caldwell has taken a voluntary pay cut.