Atlanta council pay proposal sparks debate over time, performance

A vote expected Monday by Atlanta City Council members on whether to increase their pay by about $20,000, or more than 50 percent, raises two somewhat incongruent questions.

Do they deserve the pay increase, either because of the hours they commit or because some peer cities pay more?

And if elected officials got such a substantial pay bump, would taxpayers see greater performance from the council?

Supporters say the pay bump, which would be the first in six years, would help ensure Atlanta attracts high-quality candidates. It would also bring Atlanta in line with what similar-size cities pay their elected officials.

But political scientists say there is no correlation between pay and council members’ competency and production. And approving raises to match what’s being paid elsewhere makes the faulty assumption that being a council member is like other jobs, where employees can be lured away by higher pay.

“This is an elected office, so you can’t just jump from Atlanta to Baltimore — the argument to have an equalization of salaries is not really there,” said Rohan Williamson, a professor of finance at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business who tracks executive pay. “That argument that, if we raise pay by $20,000, we’re going to get that much better a candidate, it doesn’t make sense.”

Council members, in interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, say the raises are warranted given the time commitment the job demands. Council service is not defined as either a full- or part-time job, but the hours required to do city business makes outside employment challenging, they say.

Felicia Moore, chairwoman of the council’s finance/executive committee, said she sometimes doesn’t get home until 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — committee meeting days — and often attends events on Saturdays. Then there are briefings, work sessions and other duties.

“It is a labor-intensive thing if you’re really going to put the time into it,” Moore said.

No pay increases since 2006

The raises would take effect in January 2014, after the November 2013 elections for mayor and the City Council.

The legislation would hike the council’s pay from $39,473 to $60,300, with pay for the council president — usually a nonvoting role — jumping from $41,000 to $62,000.

As written, the legislation also would boost the Atlanta mayor’s pay 25 percent, from $147,500 to $184,300. Mayor Kasim Reed, formerly an entertainment lawyer with the firm of Holland & Knight, has promised not to accept a pay increase while he is in office.

The ordinance is based on recommendations from the Elected Officials Compensation Commission, a board whose members are appointed by the mayor, the council, the council president and the Board of Education.

Reed is reserving judgment on whether to sign or veto the legislation if it passes, a spokeswoman said.

Neither the mayor nor the 15 members of the council have gotten raises since 2006.

“It does make sense for me that this would be an appropriate time to adjust the compensation,” said at-large Councilman Aaron Watson, who also works at the Barnes & Thornburg LLP law firm in Buckhead.

Harvey Newman, a professor of public management and policy at Georgia State University, called the measure — which, if fully implemented, would cost taxpayers more than $1.4 million over four years — “a colossal piece of bad timing.”

“How long has it been since the average city worker got a pay increase?” Newman said. “This would send all the wrong messages at the wrong time. I know it doesn’t represent a large amount of the total city budget ($542 million). But when you have rank-and-file employees who aren’t getting raises, this just leaves them out in the cold.”

Four years ago, the council declined a pay increase recommended by the Elected Officials Compensation Commission. At the time, employees were being laid off, City Hall was closed on Fridays as a cost-cutting measure and the city had trouble staffing its fire stations.

Now, council members say the city’s more stable finances, including about $107 million in reserves, makes a pay increase for the next council a reasonable proposition. They also point to efforts to design an across-the-board pay increase for city employees. A proposal to accomplish that goal is circulating around City Hall.

“The (cash) reserves are at a prudent level — the situation is very different from four years ago, when the council decided not to act,” said Yolanda Adrean, who represents part of north Atlanta on the council. “I want to understand the methodology, but I’m not opposed to an increase.”

Peer cities, different conditions

Several council members told the AJC that pay was not a deciding factor in whether they run for office, and that they would not see an extra dime unless they stand for and win re-election.

The next council, some members say, should make as much as the elected officials who run similar-size cities.

As part of a study this year, an outside consulting firm compared Atlanta’s pay with nine other cities: Boston; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; Memphis, Tenn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and Washington.

Atlanta’s council members make about $11,250 less than the average of $50,720, although the study acknowledged difficulty in comparing the cities. Measured against cities where council members are considered part-time, Atlanta’s pay is $10,000 higher than the average.

Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University, questioned whether comparisons to other cities are useful.

“The terms in office are different, the challenges are different, the responsibilities of the council members are different,” said Beaupre, who worked for two Cincinnati mayors.

The council members’ salaries come in addition to other expenses covered by taxpayers, including office space at City Hall, staffers and money for postage and travel to conferences. The pay increase could also raise the monthly pension payments for eligible members of the council, although the amount of the pension bump would depend on the number of years they spend in the job.

Beaupre said pay increases for elected officials tend to touch raw nerves and can be potent campaign issues.

“Compared to the kind of costs that a city like Atlanta incurs, it doesn’t move the needle financially,” he said. “But it moves the emotional needle.”

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