But going forward, as city council members are overseeing budgets that are often hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it is time for the city to institute a professional approach for council compensation by setting a fair wage for city council members, including a built-in inflation escalator so that the issue is out of the way for many years to come.
The Mountain View City Council took a significant step forward last week when it voted to limit the size of a proposed salary increase to $400 a month, instead of doubling their earnings to $1,200, as was earlier suggested. The voters will decide whether to approve the ballot measure authorizing the raise to $1,000 a month with a cost of living escalator in the November election. If passed, the measure would take effect Jan. 1 next year, and would apply to a City Council with three new members.
In our view, this was a reasonable decision, although given the council's estimated workload of 30 hours a week, each member earns less than $9 an hour — less than the state's new $9-an-hour minimum wage that will kick in this July and jump to $10 in 2016.
The comparison begs the question of whether we want to pay our elected public officials less than the lowest salary permitted in the state. Also keep in mind that we are entrusting them with the city's nearly $100 million annual general fund budget. The total cost of the increase is $33,600 a year, a tiny fraction (.00003 percent) of city's budget.
There are other yardsticks to apply to council compensation. Here a few that were discussed by the council last week before deciding to approve an increase to $1,000 a month:
• A lower pay rate means that most renters and residents who work for a living could not afford to serve on the council, thus giving the edge to home owners, those who are retired, independently wealthy or are supported by spouses. While it would take three or four times more than $1,000 a month to attract anyone to the job who was going to depend entirely on a council salary to pay the bills, a higher wage would at least make it easier for someone with part-time job. Not surprisingly, there are currently no renters on the council. All members are home-owners who appear to be able to make ends meet and can afford to spend 30 hours a week on doing the city's business.
• Some have suggested that council members should be happy to serve as volunteers in the spirit of making a contribution of their time and expertise to the community. Hogwash! There is good reason to use volunteers on the various city commissions, but elected officials who make final decision on critical city issues deserve to receive a reasonable paycheck.
• Contrary to conventional wisdom, the council is actually making less today than in the 1960s and 1980s. A quick calculation by the Voice shows that the council's $250 a month pay in 1968 would be worth $1,697 in today's dollars and 1984's $500 monthly salary would be worth $1,137 today. Bringing council compensation up to $1,000 a month or even higher would hardly break the bank or be out of step with what has been paid many years ago.
In 2006, by a 4 percent margin, voters rejected a plan to triple council wages from $500 to $1,500 a month. Since then, council pay has gone up only $100 to $600. The modest proposal that will go before voters in November is a reasonable request to simply bring council compensation within sight of the minimum wage. It deserves serious consideration.