How much should elected leaders on the local level be paid?
The question has garnered renewed attention of late in Cranston, where proposals to significantly boost the pay of the mayor and members of the City Council are being considered. We imagine that, as a result, similar debates may emerge in other communities as well.
Under the plan, the salary for the next Cranston mayor would jump from $80,765 to $125,000. The proposal also seeks a 2.5 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment for the occupant of the mayor’s office.
For council members, the plan would see pay double from $4,000 to $8,000 a year. For the council’s president, compensation would jump from $5,000 to $10,000.
Unsurprisingly, the Cranston pay-hike proposals quickly became the subject of controversy and political sparring.
Mayor Allan Fung – who is serving his last term as Cranston’s chief executive due to term limits – was unsparing in his criticism, calling the mayoral pay raise plan “insane” and “outrageous.” He pledged to veto both proposals in their current form, although he left the door open for a smaller increase.
“I’ve been mayor for over 10½ years. Never had a raise, never sought a raise, and this ordinance is not being sponsored by me,” he said on WPRO last month.
Backers of the pay-hike proposals – which received their first hearing Monday night before the council’s Finance Committee – argue that the increased compensation is long overdue. The mayor’s pay has not been raised since 2002, while the compensation for council members has been steady since the early 1980s.
Council President Michael Farina, who works as an executive for CVS and has been open about his mayoral ambitions, told Dan Yorke last month that a review of the mayor’s pay has been discussed frequently in recent years. He said the issue is “something that should be looked at and analyzed.”
“To have a knee-jerk reaction and to say that this is totally outrageous, I think is wrong, because the whole purpose of this is to have a fair, honest, transparent discussion about what the equitable pay for the mayor of Cranston should be, for the next mayor,” he said.
Farina acknowledged that he would “take a hit” financially were he to win the mayor’s office. But he said regardless of whether he runs, he believes the review of the pay is needed to ensure qualified candidates find the position attractive in the future.
Fung’s point that office seekers should run based on an interest in public service, and not due to financial considerations, is well taken.
We also acknowledge that the scale of the proposed increases – more than 50 percent for the mayor and 100 percent for council members – will produce a sense of sticker shock among many observers. The current mayoral salary of $80,765 is significantly more than most Cranstonians – and Rhode Islanders – earn in a year. Many of those local citizens and taxpayers have seen their own pay stagnate over the years or watched their financial security erode in a changing economy.
But it seems clear to us that the mayoral salary in Cranston should be reviewed and, to some degree, increased. It is in Cranston’s interest for the mayor’s office to be an attractive opportunity for talented, qualified candidates from all segments of the community.
Consider that Warwick – which Cranston recently passed to become the state’s second-largest city, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures – pays its mayor $100,000 a year. Consider, too, that the Cranston mayor’s current salary is less than, or comparable to, what many municipal department heads receive – and is significantly lower than what many smaller communities, such as South Kingstown, pay their chief executives.
Cranston is an enormous enterprise with a population of more than 81,000 and an annual budget approaching $300 million. Given the responsibilities and scrutiny involved in holding the city’s top office, we do not believe that exploring a pay increase after nearly 20 years of stasis is unreasonable. Indeed, we see it as good practice.
The same, to us, holds true for the proposed council pay raises. The current rates of $4,000 for Cranston council members and $5,000 for the council president are well below the respective $10,000 and $10,500 figures for the same positions in Warwick.
The time commitment for council members is significant, and just as we want the mayor’s office to be attractive to all candidates, it is perhaps even more imperative that serving on the council be a feasible option for all citizens. Whatever the specific figure, making the pay for the positions more commensurate with the time, responsibility and scrutiny involved is vital. It will help ensure that those making key decisions truly reflect and represent the community they serve.
That is not to say that important questions do not remain.
The timing of the proposals is certainly far from ideal given the impending election year. The situation represents something of a catch-22, however, given the need to act before the new term begins in January 2021 – and the fact that the time will likely never be ideal for such a discussion from a political perspective.
We also note that members of Cranston’s School Committee – who also make a significant commitment and devote long hours to their positions – currently receive no financial compensation. In Warwick, School Committee members receive a $4,000 annual stipend, with the chairperson receiving an additional $100. This ought to be addressed as part of any discussion of the pay for elected officials on the local level.
Whatever the outcome of Cranston’s debate, we hope that the matter helps spur new discussions about civic involvement and the value of public service across our communities.
At a time when too few people are consistently active in local government, we hope that our leaders will focus on finding new and innovative ways to reach out and involve citizens.
Reviewing compensation, of course, is a part of that. But there are many ways for the talents, expertise and dedication of our citizens can be utilized beyond service in the mayor’s office or Council Chambers. And that’s something on which we cannot put a price tag.