When Lawrence city commissioners decide to do something about commission salaries, they don’t mess around.
On Tuesday, commissioners directed city staff to draw up an ordinance that would more than double city commissioners’ pay after the April 2015 election. Currently commissioners are paid $9,000 a year, and the mayor receives $10,000 a year. The new pay rate would be $20,000 for commissioners and $25,000 a year for the mayor.
Several justifications have been offered for the raises. Commissioners say they have to take significant time away from their jobs or businesses to conduct city business and they should be compensated for the loss of revenue that may result from that absence. Higher salaries also are needed, they say, to ensure that people from all socio-economic groups in the city feel able to seek a seat on the commission. And, finally, they point to the fact that the commission hasn’t received a raise since 1999, nearly 15 years ago.
All of these arguments are understandable — to a point. However, adding $55,000 in commission salaries to the city budget in one fell swoop is extreme. Commissioners should — and already do — receive reimbursement for city-related travel expenses. They also can participate in the KPERS retirement plan and the city’s health insurance plan. However, being a commissioner isn’t designed to a full-time job and commissioners shouldn’t expect their elected posts to replace their primary employment or salaries.
Even though Lawrence city commissioners hadn’t received a raise in 15 years, their salaries were not out of line with those in a number of other communities included in a survey cited in Tuesday’s commission agenda. Lawrence commissioners already make more than commissioners in Emporia, Salina, Lenexa, Manhattan, Olathe and Hutchinson (which pays its mayor and council nothing). Topeka pays its council members $10,000 a year and its mayor $20,000, but it has a strong-mayor form of government that gives that office significant added responsibility. Overland Park, which is more than twice the size of Lawrence, pays its council members $12,000 and its mayor $24,000.
Based on those comparisons, it’s hard to justify the large raises commissioners plan to approve. They obviously think the raises are overdue, but it still makes sense for them to seek more moderate, and perhaps more frequent, raises — if they think they are justified.
The commission didn’t take up the salary issue until after 11 p.m. Tuesday, but a couple of members of the public stuck around to voice their support of the raises. No one spoke against the raises, but the ordinance isn’t scheduled to come back to the commission for approval until next month so there’s still time for Lawrence residents to express their opinion. We want our elected commissioners to receive adequate compensation, but the salaries they have tentatively approved are out of line.