Nice Work If You Can Get It

April 24, 1991

Depending on how one looks at City Council President Mary Pat Clarke's proposal to increase the 18 council members' salaries from $29,000 to $36,065, it is a 24 percent hike or effectively an annual 6 percent increase over the next council's four-year term. Either way, it is exorbitant in a financially troubled city that is asking its municipal employees to forego any pay rise at all.

How much should a council member be paid for what basically is a part-time job?

We simply do not know -- and neither does anyone else. Take Indianapolis, for example. With approximately the same population as Baltimore, it pays its 29 city/county council members a base salary of $9,465 (12 percent of the mayor's salary) plus $107 for each of the year's 21 scheduled council meetings. If council members do their work and attend committee members, they can also earn an extra $59 for up to 40 meetings.

This pay structure was created 20 years ago. Nobody in Indianapolis readily seems to remember why. Other cities have equally peculiar systems.

Baltimore City's comparison should be with its neighbor. Baltimore County, which with roughly the same population has seven council members. Because they take care of single-member districts, they arguably do more work than their counterparts in the city, where each district is represented by three council members. For their efforts, county council members are paid $30,900 a year.

It would be dangerous for the City Council to depart from this parity. Such a foolhardy act would be irresponsible fiscally and politically, poisoning municipal labor relations and giving ammunition to legislators in Annapolis who claim the source of the city's problems is its unwise spending habits.

An elected, part-time council post is an office of civic pride and responsibility that is supposed to be rotated. This is one of the reasons why it is not supposed to pay what a full-time managerial job would in the private sector. Baltimore's council members already are amply compensated for their work. A 24 percent pay raise in a city with chronic financial problems? You've got to be kidding.

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