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Political salaries: a delicate balance

Of the many factors that determine who runs for and is elected to public office across the United States, one that’s often not discussed is how much the job pays.’s Alex Johnson reports.
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Reed Miller is a retired police chief in the small Georgia town of Dacula, a few miles northeast of Atlanta. For six years, Miller served on the City Council before deciding to try for mayor. That was five years ago, and he won. But he quit last year. He took a new job with the city, working for his replacement. He did it because he can make 8½ times what he made as mayor.

Miller loved being mayor — he reveled in returning from retirement to serve the town he policed for so many years.

“Personally, I liked being mayor better than marshal, although I enjoy being marshal also,” Miller said in a telephone interview from his office in City Hall in downtown Dacula, most of whose 3,848 residents are quick to remind you that it is pronounced “da-CUE-la,” not like the vampire.

“But the difference is between $40,000 and $4,800,” Miller said.

Hard economic times mean difficult choices for politicians. Some, like Miller, walk away from salaries they believe are insufficient. Others brave the wrath of the voter to award themselves pay raises, some of them eye-popping.

After years of campaigns in which candidates routinely spent many multiples of their salaries to win election, members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last month approved a 200 percent raise for themselves.

In doing so, they leaped from among California’s lowest-paid local elected officials, at $37,500 a year, to among its most richly rewarded, at more than $112,000. And by agreeing to a $75,000 cap on campaign spending in future races, they have ensured that winning a seat on the board is no longer a losing proposition.

How much is enough?
It’s a reality more and more politicians are wrestling with as many local charters, some of which haven’t been revised in decades, suppress pay levels for mayors, aldermen and county supervisors below subsistence level.

Asked whether the low pay had anything to do with his decision to step down as mayor of Dacula, Miller said, “Well, yeah, it had to.”

The median annual salary for elected chief city officials — mayors, city council chairmen and the like — is only $24,189, the International City/County Management Association found when it surveyed 3,361 of them last year. When the hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer and unpaid positions are factored in, it drops below $6,000.

That certainly describes John Reinsch, who was making $5,000 a year before his resignation as mayor of Ripon, Wis., took effect Sunday. He’s leaving to take a new job as a mortgage conversion analyst in the Milwaukee area.

Pay like that obviously isn’t the draw for people like Reinsch, 49, who has spent years in public service in his hometown, first as a member of the Board of Aldermen, then as mayor and also as president of the local Rotary chapter.

“When I ran for alderman, it wasn’t until near the election or even after that I knew there was pay,” Reinsch said in an e-mail interview. “I ran, as many do, not for the money. ... We do it mainly to ‘give back’ to the community.”

New game, old rules
Because many such positions, especially state lawmakers’ and school board members’ jobs, are officially part-time, they pay by the month or even by the meeting under rules that may not have been revised in half a century. That means they can be self-selecting, attracting primarily those candidates who have the time and the means to donate.

San Antonio, for example, is the nation’s eighth-largest city, but its City Council members are paid only $20 per weekly meeting. One result has been that older, more experienced political leaders have opted out of running, resulting in a council with several members in their 20s and early 30s — budding politicians who say they need the experience more than the money.

Tulsa, Okla., City Council members got themselves a 50 percent raise last year — to $18,000 a year.

In West Virginia, state lawmakers make $15,000 a year, while in Indiana, they get only $11,600. But at least they get daily expense payments when their legislatures are in session.

Every elected official in all but the smallest hamlets will tell you that to do the job right, you have to approach it as a full-time duty. You’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you can’t assume it’s part-time work, even if all you get is part-time pay.

“Oh no, you can’t do that,” Miller said. “As mayor, I had to put in a lot of time. ... I’d put five or six hours a day in it for $400 a month.”

Reinsch noted that unlike the public employees they oversee, “we are giving up family time, and sometimes weekends.”

Paying top dollar
So when members of the Roanoke, Va., School Board examined the issue in 1997, they worked out that after they factored in all the time they spent on the job, they made about 20 cents an hour. That led the local newspaper, the Roanoke Times, to ask in an editorial: “How do you persuade someone to run for public office at a time when all of us are just too busy and when elected leadership has too few rewards?”

You pay more. A lot more.

Denver City Council members just got an 18 percent raise, to more than $73,000 a year.

In Nashville, Tenn., a committee is exploring whether to tie pay increases for the mayor, the vice mayor and the Metro Council to an annual escalator index, so their pay keeps up with the times without their having to risk a voter backlash by asking or voting for it.

In Flagstaff, Ariz., City Council members are expected to consider a motion this summer to increase their salaries from $3,600 a year to $12,000, a 333 percent raise. The mayor’s pay would jump by the same percentage, from $5,400 to $18,000.

And legislators in Massachusetts — already among the highest-paid in the nation — voted in April to give themselves control over their own bonuses.

That vote didn’t sit well with Republican state Sen. Robert Hedlund of Weymouth, who wrote an article in several local newspapers decrying “another blow to the already fragile credibility of the Massachusetts legislature.”

And anyway, “the base-pay thing is misleading,” Hedlund, 41, said in a telephone interview, noting that a wide array of perquisites could take compensation far above the stated salary of $53,381.

Numerous committee chairmen draw extra bonuses, some of them in the tens of thousands of dollars. And lawmakers draw their per-diem payments based on the honor system, he said.

Those who live more than 50 miles from the capital get a tax break, too. “And then you have pension and benefits that are an attraction for people to serve for a while,” he said.

All of that is for part-time work. According to figures compiled by Hedlund’s office, Massachusetts senators worked only 13 eight-hour days last year, while Assembly members put in 24 days. It adds up to a system that can attract candidates who run for office for all the wrong reasons, Hedlund said.

“In Massachusetts, we have members who couldn’t make this much money in the private sector based on their skills, in my opinion,” he said.

Is there a happy medium?
Hedlund said that as far as he was concerned, public servants were just that — servants — and “I don’t buy into the idea that you need to pay them.”

“First and foremost, it should be about public service, and we’re beyond that to a degree where there really isn’t a sacrifice made by members to serve,” he said.

Reinsch, the newly former mayor of Ripon, said the trick was to find the proper balance between a salary high enough to attract qualified candidates but not so high that people run for the money.

“I wouldn’t want elected officials running because of the pay, at least not on the city level,” he said. “On the other hand we need to make sure that for full-time officials we aren’t losing people who can’t at least make a living. While I am against career politicians in theory, we still must be fair to our officials.”

Miller, the Dacula city marshal, said, “You would have more people who would consider” running if pay were higher. But “whether they would be the better people, I don’t know. They might just be in it for the money.”

“You don’t do it for the money,” Miller stressed. “You’re part of developing and building the city. You have a part in how it goes.”

Then he stopped for a moment and reconsidered:

“Of course, I’m doing the marshal’s job for the money. But it’s 10 times as much.”