Editorial: City should scrap plan to raise commission pay, or think even bolder

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

As Lawrence city commissioners consider increasing their pay from $9,000 a year to $38,000 a year, here’s a statistic they may want to consider: The median earnings for a Lawrence resident with a full-time job is $42,700.

What are we trying to say if we begin paying city commissioners $38,000 a year?

Are we saying that Lawrence city commissioners — who often have three official meetings per month but also attend many community functions and presumably have a good amount of homework to do to keep up on city issues — work nearly as hard as the average full-time worker?

Being a city commissioner is actual work, but it is not clear that it really is a full-time job. If it has become one, the public should be concerned. Why do we need five full-time commissioners running the city when we pay multiple, full-time administrators strong wages to do much of that work? The system is not designed for commissioners to be full time.

Maybe we are just saying that being a commissioner is a really important part-time job. If it takes 20 hours a week — for some it might, and for others it certainly doesn’t — that would equate to a $76,000 a year full-time job, which is in the ballpark of what an executive in Lawrence may make.

It may be true that a Lawrence City Commission position is a really important part-time job. But a risk comes with paying it as such. The risk is you will get people who are just doing this important job for the money. If you talk to the public, anecdotally, a majority says the job shouldn’t be about the money.

It is not hard to imagine someone with little in the way of job experience but a lot in the way of Facebook followers running and winning in such a scenario. Maybe in today’s populist world that is what we want.

Or maybe not. It seems that this idea of a big jump in pay for commissioners hasn’t been very well thought out. There is some fear this is more of a sibling rivalry between the city and the county. County commissioners were paid $36,000 in 2018, and some city officials are likely wondering why county commissioners get paid so much more. That may be a valid question, but that doesn’t automatically mean the answer is to raise City Commission pay.

Most city commissioners elsewhere in the state also aren’t making what Douglas County commissioners make. The Journal-World looked at commission salaries elsewhere and found a $38,000 salary would make Lawrence the second-highest paid commission among the larger populated communities, with only Wichita — the state’s largest city — coming in higher.

But the numbers also showed Lawrence’s current $9,000 salary is in the bottom tier. Commission salaries also haven’t been adjusted since 1999. For those reasons it is fair that the city consider whether the current structure is accomplishing what we want.

The simplest path would be to approve a more modest increase — maybe to $12,000 a year — and move on to other issues. But if commissioners want to be really reflective of how to make the commission better, they could study the idea of a full-time mayor. It could be a four-year position that would earn $100,000 a year — an amount truly high enough to get the attention of our community’s most talented residents. It is also, by the way, less than the total pay increase currently proposed. Going from $9,000 to $38,000 for five commissioners totals $145,000 a year.

Make no mistake, the city should continue to have a professional city manager. A four-year mayor would play a different role. Before moving forward, the community would need to answer some questions. The key questions to answer are whether a four-year mayor could create a better strategic vision for the city, improve relations with state legislators and other regional organizations, create follow-through on government efficiencies, encourage KU leaders to more meaningfully engage with the community and improve cooperation between the city and county.

If so, that would be money well spent.


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