It Just Might Work: Putting council on payroll

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by Brian Clarey

With all the talk lately about cities paying people a living wage, we often overlook the lowest-paid city employees of them all: The elected city councilmembers, who make a pittance for their efforts, in some cases not nearly enough to cover the cost of running for the seats.

Rank-and-file Triad city council members earn on average just a little more than $10,000 a year — High Point’s mark is a little lower. Mayors get between $12,000, in High Point, and $15,000 or so in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Figuring for about 20 hours a week of work — conservative considering the committee meetings, community get-togethers, ribbon-cuttings, graduations, sporting events and other obligations — our mayors make at best about $14 an hour. The rank-and-file make less than $10. And just about any councilmember can tell you that the expenses of holding office far exceed what the paycheck can cover.

No wonder so many Triad council members have had financial difficulties — notably former Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins and High Point Councilman Foster Douglas, both of whom recently filed for bankruptcy.

The rigors of this kind of work — cushy though it may seem from the outside — can be seriously distracting from running a business, raising a family, taking vacations. It takes up a lot of time. And we want the kinds of council members for whom time is too valuable a commodity to just give away.

I’m not saying we totally hook them up with six-figure salaries, expense accounts and car allowances — they’re not bankers! Not all of them, anyway.

But a modest salary of about $35,000 for councilmembers and $40,000 for the mayor would allow them more breathing room without breaking the city budget.

An increase like this in Greensboro, for example, would take up about .003 percent of the annual budget.

For many of them, it would not be a strong enough impetus to keep from working, but for a lot of them it would make a huge difference in the amount of time they could spend away from their business interests.

It would give all our elected officials a show of support from the people they’re supposed to serve, a constant reminder that their time is indeed worth something.

And it might entice people who otherwise couldn’t afford it into running for office.