Atlanta City Council votes for 50 percent pay increase

Atlanta City Council representatives could get more expensive come 2014.

The council voted 10-4 on Monday to raise salaries by more than 50 percent for members who will take office in January 2014, after next year’s election. The pay increases of roughly $20,000, pushing the pay for the City Council and its president above $60,000, appear to be the largest in Atlanta’s history.

The vote is the latest move in an escalation of salaries that stretches back to at least the 1990s. With the upcoming pay spike, the City Council’s pay will have nearly tripled in twelve years, creating a potentially potent issue for challengers in next year’s elections.

The controversial vote also sets up tense talks with city employees about their own promised increases. The ordinance was based on the findings of an advisory group that spent about eight months studying the issue.

With a separate across-the-board pay increase for city employees held up in committee because of uncertainty about the city’s property tax collections, the City Council’s pay increase sparked a wave of criticism in online forums and during Monday’s meeting.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded that we’re standing here having this conversation,” said Ken Allen, president of Atlanta’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. “It’s absurd.”

City Council members say they’re not paid enough for the hours they put in, especially with their pay essentially frozen for the last six years. Atlanta’s code does not define the job as either full- or part-time, but several City Council members have outside employment.

“We work a lot,” said Carla Smith, who represents part of southeast Atlanta on the City Council. Smith said constituents sometimes call her at 6:30 a.m., and she recently got a call about an illegal party at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Atlanta City Council members pointed out that pay increases have already been put in place for some city employees to get them up to market rates. They also insisted they are not voting directly on their own pay — voters will be able to cast ballots on all incumbents seeking re-election before the pay increase locks in.

But in Georgia, local incumbents are rarely defeated. Incumbents defeated challengers in 71 percent of this year’s races, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

A final decision over the legislation now rests with Mayor Kasim Reed, who has promised to decline the 25 percent or $37,000 pay increase in the ordinance. A spokeswoman for Reed said the mayor wants to review the ordinance before deciding whether to sign it, veto it or let it slide into law without his signature.

On Monday, veteran council member Cleta Winslow struck a defiant tone before voting for the pay increase.

“I’m not afraid of the media,” she said. “We’re public servants, yes we are. But it doesn’t mean we have to take less because we’re public servants.”

“We didn’t take a raise last time, and we didn’t get a kiss on the cheek for that,” Winslow continued. “We didn’t hear anybody saying, ‘great job.’ It’s time for us to get more money. We work seven days a week. We’re asking for ours…I think we deserve it.”

The City Council’s pay bump amounts to a cost of $1.28 million over four years. The president of the group is now scheduled to make $62,000 in a role that is generally administrative.

“Is the timing right? Well, this is the time that’s prescribed,” said Ceasar Mitchell, the current City Council president. “We didn’t come up with this recommendation.”

The ordinance followed the suggestions of the Elected Officials Compensation Commission, which by law must issue a report every four years. That group is appointed by the city’s mayor, City Council members and others who have income at stake in the outcome.

There are other links between the appointed group and city officials. At least one member of the compensation commission works for a company that a city contract worth $200,000 last year.

Jason Stverak, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, said the pay increase could be a powerful issue for challengers in upcoming elections.

“When you’re in tighter economic times, and maybe your neighbor lost his job, and you’re working two jobs and an elected politician wants to raise the pay, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Stverak, formerly executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party.

For the compensation report made public a month ago, a consulting firm compared the pay for Atlanta’s City Council with nine other cities it deemed comparable in size and government structure.

Atlanta’s council members currently make about $11,250 less than the average among those cities. The pay increase would place Atlanta’s compensation above Columbus, Ohio, which pays City Council members $46,000 apiece, according to the study. It would also move Atlanta’s pay closer to cities such as Denver — where pay will be $80,700 as of July 2013 — and Portland, Ore., where it stands at $103,500. In the Southeast, Jacksonville, Fla. pays its city council members $44,100, Memphis pays $29,070 and Nashville offers $15,000.

Union leaders said Monday that they wanted to know where the money was going to come from, and said the 50 percent increase for City Council was especially questionable given pension reform 17 months ago. That reform required city employees to contribute more towards their pensions.

Jim Daws, president of the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Monday that he didn’t mind if the City Council gets a raise. But 50 percent is way too much, he said.

“There’s no doubt we need to pay our elected officials better in this city,” Daws said. “I can tell you, though, that my members are deeply frustrated. …Our members continue to fall further and further behind.”

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