When elected officials propose to raise their own pay, at least some part of their constituency reacts with indignation.
That’s not particularly surprising. After all, how many of us work a job that permits us to decide our salaries? Unless you’re an entrepreneur—and saddled with all the risks that come with it—you’re generally not in charge of setting your own pay.
So our gut reaction to someone who has that authority and decides to use it is often incredulity at the sheer audacity of the move. But what’s interesting about most elected officials is how rarely they actually do seek to raise their own pay
Then, when they finally act, so much time has passed that what may be a reasonable pay hike appears huge, setting off inevitable criticism that leads those officials to shelve the idea. And the cycle begins again in a few years.
So it is with the City-County Council in Indianapolis, whose members’ base pay hasn’t increased for three decades. The per diem councilors receive for meetings last increased in 2002.
All in, councilors with no leadership appointments can earn up to $16,232 annually, far below their counterparts across the country. As IBJ’s Samm Quinn reported last week, city councilors in Louisville earn four times more than councilors in Indianapolis. And the gap is even greater between officials in Indy and those in Columbus, Ohio.
That’s why Monroe Gray, a Democrat who has been on the council for 30 years, proposed again this year to boost base salaries. His plan would have raised base pay to $21,480 next year and to about $25,000 in 2021. It drew immediate condemnation from Republicans and even Democratic Mayor Joe Hogsett, who said he would veto the measure.
Some of that outrage is understandable. Gray’s proposal came immediately after Democrats increased their majority on the council to 20-5, a pickup of six seats. Responding to the backlash, the council’s president, Democrat Vop Osili, pulled the proposal hours before it was to be heard at the council’s Dec. 9 meeting.
But we’re pleased Osili and Gray aren’t giving up on the plan completely. Osili said it would be considered in 2020—and we encourage the council to do so.
The council’s pay is just too low to expect the body to attract quality candidates. And it’s ridiculous to say that the men and women who serve should be willing to do so for little or no pay, simply out of the goodness of their hearts.
Serving on the council—when done right—is a big job. And members should be fairly compensated.
We would encourage the council to think about how this controversy could be averted in the future. Maybe that means the council approves salary increases in advance of elections so that they take effect for the next council. Maybe it means creating an advisory panel to recommend pay increases. Perhaps the salaries should be some percentage of the mayor’s salary.
The council’s discussion next year should not be whether to approve a pay raise. That’s a slam dunk. It should be about choosing an amount that’s fair and determining how to avoid this kerfuffle in the future.•
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