Panel: Big pay raises needed for Atlanta officials

A city of Atlanta advisory commission recommends big pay hikes for elected officials, citing a survey of nine peer cities.

Any move to put that suggestion into practice during tough economic times, however, looks likely to encounter a whirlwind of opposition.

Pay for Atlanta City Council members should be boosted in 2014 by more than 50 percent, from about $40,000 to about $60,000, according to the non-binding recommendations from the Elected Officials Compensation Commission.

The commission suggests hiking the Atlanta mayor’s pay 25 percent, from $147,500 now to $184,300, after the next mayoral election a year from now. Atlanta Board of Education members should get cost of living increases of about $5,000, depending on their exact role, the commission said in a report.

The pay bumps would cost taxpayers more than $1.42 million over four years, a fraction of a percentage point in the city’s $542 million general fund. They would have to be proposed in legislation, passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Kasim Reed to take effect.

It’s unclear whether anyone on the council will champion such a move. Reed, who would need to win re-election next year to be eligible for the boosted salary, has said he would not seek or accept a pay raise while in office.

“My personal opinion is, I think the City Council is grossly underpaid,” said Jamel DaCosta, co-chair of the compensation commission, which periodically reviews compensation for various city offices and makes recommendations every four years.

Some Atlanta residents interviewed Wednesday sharply disagreed.

“I’m opposed to spending money,” Buckhead resident Ron Geraneo said. “I look at my water bill, and I feel like I had to personally pay for the repair of the city’s sewer system. They should be giving money to us.”

In a 15-page report obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the commission said the recommended increases were designed to attract top talent and compensate officials for commitment, including work weeks that can stretch to 60 hours.

Felicia Moore, who chairs the city council’s finance/executive committee, said Wednesday she wants to study the recommendations further but leans towards supporting a pay increase. She did not say if she would be willing to sponsor a pay raise bill.

“We should make sure we are within the range of the market,” said Moore, adding that she also wants to discuss across-the-board pay increase for city employees. “We’ll have plenty of discussion and debate about this over the next three weeks.”

Gina Pagnotta-Murphy, president of Atlanta’s Professional Association of City Employees, demanded that city officials spike the recommended pay increases. Rank-and-file city employees have not received raises in years, and were recently asked to bear more expense for their pensions.

A 50 percent pay increase for officeholders would be “stealing,” Pagnotta-Murphy said.

“The employees have not been compensated fairly for about ten years,” she said. “For the commission to make that recommendation is one thing. For the council to accept that recommendation is another. It is not warranted and it’s not in good spirits. We don’t think it’s the right thing to do. It’s not showing good leadership.”

Compensation commission recommendations have a mixed record. In 2005, City Council members voted themselves 22 percent raises in 2006, assuming they got re-elected. That was substantially more than the 14 percent recommended by the commission.

Then in 2008, the compensation commission said the next mayor’s salary should jump from $147,000 to $225,000 per year. That proposal was shelved as the City Council opposed any salary increase until city employees got a cost-of-living increase.

Neither the mayor nor city council members have gotten raises since 2006. With the city’s finances under serious strain, former Mayor Shirley Franklin cut her own salary by $40,000 after taking office in 2002.

Pay for Atlanta’s board of education has not risen in a decade, according to the report, which recommends that the city’s elected education officials get a cost of living increase of about $5,000, raising their salaries to roughly $20,000.

DeKalb County commissioners make about $38,000 per year, although they can earn nearly $41,000 by getting various certifications.

In Gwinnett, a rookie commissioner would make $29,800 in the part-time job. County chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who works full-time, makes more than $58,000.

Salaries for Cobb County commissioners range from about $40,500 for Bob Ott — who took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut — to about $43,700 for Helen Goreham. Goreham got a longevity pay bump for serving more than one term. Cobb County chairman Tim Lee makes $130,000.

The Atlanta compensation commission’s six members are appointed by the mayor, city council, city council president and Board of Education. The group worked on its latest recommendations for more than seven months.

The group hired the Atlanta-based Schapiro Group, a strategy and consulting firm, to compare the city’s pay to nine others: Nashville; Denver; Jacksonville; Boston; Seattle; Memphis; Washington DC; Columbus, Ohio; and Portland, Ore. Reed’s salary ranked seventh out of 10 in the group.

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