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Salaries For Elected Officials

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Jun 12, 2006
 

What job pays at least $90,000 a year and still leaves enough free time to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional income?

It is the job of a New York City Council member - or at least it is for one. Brooklyn Councilmember Dominic Recchia, who makes $90,000 a year in council salary and an additional $10,000 for chairing the council's cultural affairs committee also earns about a quarter million dollars or more in outside income, according to city documents.

What city government job pays $150,000 a year and provides a car and driver, but has no real power over city policy?

There are at least six such jobs: public advocate and the five borough presidents, who were stripped of most of their authority years ago, but whose positions remain nonetheless.

This summer, there is a debate over whether or not these elected officials deserve a pay raise.

TOP COUNCIL EARNERS IN 2004
Domenic M. Recchia
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $10,000
Outside Income: At Least $210,000
TOTAL: At least $310,000
G. Oliver Koppell
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $10,000
Outside Income: At Least $141,000
TOTAL: At least $241,000
David I. Weprin
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $18,000
Outside Income: At Least $110,000
TOTAL: At least $218,000
Michael E. McMahon
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $10,000
Outside Income: At Least $100,000
TOTAL: At least $200,000
Lewis A. Fidler
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $10,000
Outside Income: At Least $79,000
TOTAL: At least $179,000
Kendall Stewart
Council Salary: $90,000
Stipend: $10,000
Outside Income: At Least $60,000
TOTAL: At least $160,000

Click here for more information about councilmembers' outside income.

Michael Bloomberg recently appointed a commission to consider the compensation for the office of mayor, comptroller, public advocate, borough president, district attorneys, and members of the City Council.

The commision will consider factors like:
. The cost of living in New York
. What similar positions in the private sector pay
. Additional stipends for council members
. If it is a full-time or part-time job
. The amount of time since the last raise

And then they will make a recommendation to the mayor in July.

Proponents of a salary increase argue it has been seven years since local officials got their last increase.

"I think its time for the council to get a raise, yes," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn recently told the New York Post editorial board.

But critics question the rationale and the process.

For one thing, the City Council gets to vote for its own salary increases. It is also the only elected position that is allowed to be part time. About a quarter of the members also earn outside income - as lawyers, investment bankers, and political consultants, and one is a foot doctor.

The debate raises a difficult question: How much should public service pay?

COST OF LIVING IN NYC

New York City is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Money Magazine calculates that the cost of living in the city is 138 percent more than the national average. In turn, New York City elected officials are among the highest paid in the nation.

Currently, the salaries for local officials are:
- Mayor $195,000
- Comptroller $160,000
- Public Advocate $150,000
- District Attorney $150,000
- Borough President $150,000
- Council Member $90,000

However, the median income of all workers in New York City is only $41,509 - which means that the mayor earns five times more and a City Council member earns more than two times more than the average New Yorker.

Some believe this is plenty.

"I'm fine with $90,000," said Queens Councilmember Tony Avella. "I think that is enough."

But others argue that most elected officials work long hours and make decisions that affect millions of people - and that higher salaries help attract the highest caliber of people, especially in a city where many expect to - and need to - earn high wages.

"The salaries do not compensate for the time and effort and energy needed to serve," said John Zaccone, who works for the Staten Island Borough President and was one of only three people to testify at a June 1 hearing on the issue. "The salaries must not act as a deterrent to qualified people seeking public office."

PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE SECTOR

Michael Bloomberg accepts just $1 a year as the mayor of New York City. Because of his personal wealth, he has the luxury of refusing a city paycheck.

But most politicians need to pay the bills while they engage in public service, which invariably sparks a debate when the issue of compensation arises: How much is an elected official worth?

One way to think about the issue is to consider what similar jobs in the private sector pay. By this measure, many elected officials are underpaid.

At $195,000 a year, New York City has the highest paid mayor in the nation, but he is the boss of more than 300,000 city employees. CEOs of smaller corporations make many times more; the chairmen of Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, for example, each earn more than $30 million a year.

District Attorneys, who currently make $150,000, only earn about the same as a first year associate at a private law firm. Some good government groups and newspaper editorial boards have urged a pay increase for prosecutors.

"The compensation for the district attorneys should be increased by a greater amount than for other offices given how low the pay is for those who are members of the legal profession in service to the city," Dick Dadey of Citizens Union (the sister organization of Citizens Union Foundation which publishes Gotham Gazette) recently testified.

However, it is difficult to compare jobs like the public advocate or borough president, which have little powers over city policy or the budget. They spend much of their time advocating for certain causes, serving as government liaisons, or acting as cheerleaders for their communities.

Critics who have argued that these government jobs should be eliminated are particularly opposed to giving them raises.

"The $150,000 salary is a gross overpayment for the worthless post of public advocate," the Daily News editorial board wrote.

Still others argue that public service is fundamentally different than working in private industry. People should be motivated by a desire to help others, they say, not by money.

"Public service has never been about becoming rich unless you are corrupt," Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group argues. "It's supposed to be about serving the public, by definition, and the gratification is not monetary."

SHOULD COUNCIL STIPENDS BE BANNED?

The City Council Speaker has power to give members stipends - also known as "lulus" - in addition to the base salary of $90,000 a year.

Currently, 46 of the 51 City Council members receive stipends. They range from $4,000 to $18,000 for serving as chairs of various committees. Some earn additional stipends for leadership positions ranging from $5,000 up to $28,500 for Council Speaker Christine Quinn. (Click here for a full list of salaries and stipends.)

Bronx Councilmember Joel Rivera earns an additional $23,000 a year for chairing the health committee and for serving as majority leader, a title that carries no real responsibilities other than, as the rules state, "appointing party officers as he deems appropriate." The lulus bring his total annual salary to $113,000 a year.

There is also Deputy Majority Leader Leroy Comrie (who earns an additional $20,000), and Assistant Majority Leaders Bill deBlasio and Lewis Fidler (who each earn an extra $15,000) and Majority Whip Inez Dickens (who earns an additional $11,000). And it is not just the Democrats who enjoy the lulus. Two of the three Republicans in the council also have leadership roles. James Oddo earns an additional $18,000 as the minority leader and Dennis Gallagher earns $5,000 for being the minority whip.

All told, the council members approved a total of $479,500 in stipends for themselves this year.

Some critics have called for an end to the practice because it gives the speaker power to dole out money or take it away from those who grow too independent - and it is a way for council members to boost their own salaries without going thorough the proper process.

"Why not have any salary increases tied to the elimination of stipends, which can be used to punish or reward members?" said Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

IS IT A FULL-TIME JOB?

All elected officials are required to work full-time and are not allowed to earn outside income from other jobs, with one exception: members of the New York City Council.

At least 17 of the 51 current City Council members earn outside income from law firms, political consulting jobs, apartment rentals, or pensions, according to records from the Conflict of Interest Board.

Although the financial disclosure forms that the council members are required to fill out only list a range of earned income and not the exact amount, the records show that a half a dozen council members make close to a quarter million dollars a year in income. (Click here for a complete chart of information on the additional income earned by the current members of the City Council.)

In 2004, Brooklyn Councilmember Bill deBlasio made somewhere between $5,000 and $35,000 as a consultant for John Edwards' failed president campaign.

The same year, Brooklyn Councilmember Kendall Stewart made at least $60,000 working as a podiatrist.

Queens Councilmember David Weprin, who chairs the finance committee, made at least $110,000 in additional income from his work as a lawyer and investment banker. And Bronx Councilmember Oliver Koppell earned at least $141,000 in outside income from his law firm and pension payments from his time in the State Assembly.

Brooklyn Councilmember Dominic Recchia is the biggest earner in the council. In 2004, Recchia made somewhere between $210,000 and $570,000 in addition to his council salary from his law practice as well as rental and sales income from properties in Stratton, Vermont.

The exception that allows council members to earn outside income dates back to a time when there were fewer members and they had little power. Today, however, each council member represents approximately 157,000 people and votes on legislation, the city's $50 billion budget, and land use items.

Some believe it should be a full-time position.

"Just ask my wife, this is not a part time job," said Councilmember Joseph Addabbo, who estimates he works 12 to 15 hour days, six or seven days a week and recently introduced a resolution that would designate the council position as a full-time job.

Still, while many council members want to do away with the stigma of it only being part-time, most are reluctant to limit their colleagues' ability to earn outside income.

"I didn't want to jam this law down anybody's throat," said Addabbo.

This year, good government groups support a modest pay increase for council members, but also called for making the job full-time and eliminating council stipends.

DO THEY NEED A RAISE NOW?

In New York City, the salaries for local elected officials are supposed to be reevaluated every four years through an official process. The mayor appoints a three-member commission with a name as obscure as its task: the Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels of Elected Officials.

Over the next month, the commission will consider factors like cost of living, trends across the country, and the responsibilities of the officials, and make a recommendation on salary changes to Mayor Bloomberg by July. The mayor can accept, reject, or modify the recommendation. It then goes to the City Council for a vote.

In the past, some politicians, who recognize that the subject of pay raises is touchy, have ignored the commission's suggestions.

In 1995, elected officials were given across the board increases, but Public Advocate Mark Green refused to accept the $20,000 increase because he was being forced to lay off members of his staff because of cutbacks.

In 1999, five City Council members voted against a 28 percent pay increase for themselves, some calling it "unconscionable" and a "windfall" for politicians (although the measure passed and they still accepted the extra money).

And in 2003, billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that the city's budget woes were so bad that he refused to even appoint a commission as required by city law, and instead postponed it.

But now that the city's fiscal situation has improved - and the next local election isn't until 2009 so voters who are angered by any pay increases are likely to forget by the next election day - most observers believe there will be some kind of pay increase this year.

Under the rules, current council members will vote to increase their own salaries. Congress as well as representatives to the State Legislature are only allowed to vote for increases for those people elected in the next term to prevent such a conflict.

Critics also scoff at the notion that elected officials haven't had a raise in seven years. Because of term limits, most haven't even been in office that long.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer took office in January. Of the 51 council members, 34 members have been in office for only four years, and eight have held office for just six months.

"It's a safe bet none of them campaigned in November on a pledge to raise his or her own salary," argued the Daily News editorial board.

Additional reporting by John Pham, Daniel Rivoli, and Shoshana Schwartz

Related Links:

2006 City Council Member Salaries and Stipends
Non-City Income for NYC Council Members - 2004
Advisory Commission for the Review of Compensation Levels of Elected Officials

 


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