The increases arise amid a wider conversation about how to hire and retain workers

A city commission appointed by elected officials is proposing big salary increases for Honolulu’s top 51 elected and appointed city officials, including the mayor, the City Council, department heads and their deputies.

If approved, Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s salary could jump almost $32,000, climbing from $186,432 to $218,256. Managing Director Mike Formby’s salary would similarly rise by nearly $30,000 to $208,759.

That’s if the commission granted a 17% hike, one of three proposals on the table now.

The second would give 12.56% increases and a $5,000 lump sum and the third would give just a 12.56% increase.

The hikes for City Council members, however, would be even more dramatic. Council Chair Tommy Waters now earns $76,969 a year, for what has been characterized as a part-time job.

If the job is established as more appropriately a full-time post and the salary change was approved, his pay would more than double, to $194,992. The other council members’ pay could climb to $185,017.

Honolulu Hale top view. 1 may 2017
Honolulu city officials are pressing for big pay raises for themselves, saying that they are overdue for increases. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

The decision is in the hands of the Honolulu Salary Commission, a seven-member panel who are nominated to their posts by the mayor and the City Council.

Many city residents have been startled by double-digit property tax increases amid an economy that is still recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The city recently had to disperse $25 million from the dwindling pool of covid relief money to financially stressed Honolulu residents who have fallen behind on their rent and utility payments.

Natalie Iwasa, an accountant and community advocate, said she initially was “very surprised” to learn about the salary hikes, which she called “really very large.”

“That’s a lot,” said Tom Yamachika, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.

In a letter to the salary commission in January, Blangiardi said the pay increases would reflect “fair and equitable compensation” to highly qualified people. At a press conference this month, he noted that it had been four years since the mayor and top administrators received a pay raise.

Inflation is also a factor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, prices have risen 19% in that period.

At a Honolulu City Council meeting on Jan. 25, several council members underscored their concerns about their low pay and long hours to Rebecca Soon, a council-selected nominee to the salary commission.

Waters pointed out that the council meets year-round, unlike the Hawaii Legislature, which also earns a part-time salary but only meets from January to May. He also noted that city department heads earn more than council members.

Soon indicated she believes the pay structure is inadequate, and was confirmed to a spot on the panel.

The commission will deliberate over the hikes and a proposed salary study and take comments from the public at a hearing on March 21.

Given the composition of the commission, it is likely that the panel will approve the increases. But changing political and economic conditions sometimes result in surprising reversals.

Changing Roles

In April 2020, as the covid pandemic cast a shadow on the local economy, then-Mayor Kirk Caldwell asked the Honolulu Salary Commission not to recommend raises for himself or other top city officials. It reflected a political shift. Officials had wanted the increases and had expected a 3% increase because the commission had already voted in favor of it. That is the reason for the four-year pay freeze.

The situation for the City Council is more complex. The higher ask reflects more than just pay, but also a changing perception of the nature of the job. Council jobs were once viewed as part-time gigs for people who held other outside employment — such as attorneys with busy law practices who volunteered their free time to public office — while modern expectations and obligations have meant that most council members work 40 to 60 hours a week.

Iwasa, an avid council-watcher, said over time it has become apparent that some council members need more money to support themselves and that serving on the council has become a financial hardship.

She added that getting more pay might encourage council members to be more active in the community outside normal council hours, particularly by participating more regularly in neighborhood board meetings in their districts. She noted that some have stopped attending board meetings or just send members of their staff.

“Neighborhood boards are where constituents relay their concerns, and if the council member isn’t there, they are not even hearing what their constituents are concerned about,” she said.

Iwasa said that community members would expect to see council members regularly at board meetings if they got more money.

“The public will say, what are they doing to earn that increase?” she said.

The first meeting of the year began after an inauguration ceremony in January for newly elected council members, . (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The proposed pay hikes are arising amid a wider conversation about how to hire and retain workers, as the city continues to struggle with thousands of unfilled positions, particularly for jobs that pay very low wages. At budget hearings at Honolulu Hale last week, council members were told that some city workers are paid as little as $35,000 a year, which is why so many city positions are going unfilled.

Pay increases for top administration officials tend to mirror what has been negotiated in collective bargaining agreements with unionized city employees.

Blangiardi made that point explicit in his letter to the salary commission. He pointed out that under the collective bargaining agreement reached last year between the combined state and local governments and the Hawaii Government Employees Association Bargaining Unit 13, which includes professional and scientific employees, city officials who were covered by the contract got cumulative raises worth 11% of their salaries when annual raises from 2019 to 2023 are tallied.

He said that the hikes granted to unionized employees meant that some managers are making more than their department heads, which he called a “pay inversion.”

In July, after an arbitrated settlement of their claims, police in Hawaii, including officers in Honolulu, received a 5% per year pay raise for the next three years, or an increase of a bit more than 15%. The police union had sought 6%.

Police union officials said they found it encouraging that the city is seeking to raise wages to hire and keep good workers, and hope the effort will expand to cover other city employees as well.

“While we have not had the opportunity to review the justification for the increases, we certainly understand how critical it is to pay competitive wages, especially as the city works to retain current employees and attract new ones,” said Nicholas Schlapak, the Honolulu chairman of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers.

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