Editorial: City salaries

Being a city commissioner is an important job, but salary shouldn’t be a primary motivator for people seeking those posts.

Why do Lawrence city commissioners get paid $9,000 a year while Douglas County commissioners are paid about $33,000 a year?

It’s a fair question and one that was part of Tuesday’s discussion about the possibility of raising the salary for members of the Lawrence City Commission.

The city salary issue was raised by Aron Cromwell, who will leave the City Commission next week. He suggested that the $9,000 salary was so low that it made it difficult for “somebody like a schoolteacher or someone with a traditional job to take this position.” On the other side of the coin, Commissioner Mike Amyx noted that it’s important to maintain the nature of the body as a group of “citizen commissioners,” not full-time professionals.

They are both good arguments. It wouldn’t benefit the city to have commissioners who look at the job primarily as a paycheck. Their central motivation should be a desire to serve the community. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be a financial hardship — and it would be good to broaden the spectrum of potential commissioners.

The comparison of city and county commission salaries certainly adds fuel to this discussion. The duties and the time requirement for the two commissions seem roughly equivalent, so why the salary discrepancy? It appears to be mostly a matter of tradition. Many years ago, before the addition of professional administrators, county commissioners had considerably more duties than city commissioners. Over the years, that differential just never went away.

The salary for a Douglas County commissioner dropped from about $19,000 per year to about $15,000 a year in 1989, shortly after the county hired its first full-time administrator. It remained at that level until 2001, when it rose to about $19,000 a year. For several years after that, commissioners gave themselves a raise equal to the cost of living raise given to other county employees, but in 2007, after looking at the salaries of comparable commissions in other counties, Douglas County commissioners approved raising their annual salary by more than $12,000 to $33,500.

The City Commission’s salary history is considerably different. In 1975, commissioners were paid $900 a year. That edged up to $6,000 by 1991 and $9,000 in 1999, the last year a raise was approved. It may be more complicated than this, but the logical conclusion seems to be that either county commissioners get paid too much or city commissioners get paid too little. If county pay is about right, then the city needs to catch up.

City commissioners, of course, have no sway over county salaries, but it’s certainly fine for them to take another look at their own pay level. A good first step would be to see how Lawrence commission salaries compare with those in other cities. Maybe an increase is justified — although as a matter of form, it shouldn’t take effect until two years from now, after the next election. Commissioners also might do well to take a more moderate approach rather than considering tripling their salaries in one fell swoop.