When voters go the polls on May 9 to elect a mayor and City Council, they also will decide whether to pay the people they elect a working salary. If they approve the amendment to the 1951 City Charter that sets officeholder compensation, council members will begin earning $45,722, the current median family income in San Antonio, on July 1. The mayor will receive that same salary, plus a 35% differential reflecting that office’s citywide responsibilities, for total pay of $61,275.
That would represent a nice pay raise for elected officials in San Antonio, a city known for the lowest officeholder compensation of any major city in the nation. A recent poll of city voters reportedly showed people are evenly divided when asked if they support or oppose the measure. Those same voters, however, favored the measure by a solid 60-40 majority once they were reminded council members currently earn $20 a week and the mayor earns $20 a week plus a $3,000 annual stipend. That comes to $77.69 a week.
Put another way, council members who average 50-60 hours a week on the job are paid the minimum wage for about three hours of work a week.
SensiblePayForSA, a newly formed group working to win approval of the charter amendment, sees the measure as a good government initiative in a city on the rise. It’s smart investment, the group’s leadership says, to pay officeholders for what has become a full-time job, one in which elected officials are making major decisions affecting the future trajectory of the city.
“I think people are becoming more aware that San Antonio is a leading edge city in many ways and this change is long overdue, and a smart way to maintain our city’s momentum, our AAA bond rating, and our very bright future,” said David McGee, a member of the Charter Review Commission, the immediate past chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and president and CEO of Amegy Bank San Antonio.
Paying salaries, McGee said, will deepen the pool of qualified candidates and help keep those elected in office longer, reducing turnstile government and keeping more experienced leaders at work for the city.
“Prior to last year and my service as the chamber chairman I actually vehemently opposed paying Council because I had this misguided idea in my mind that council members came to meetings and waved their magics wands and then went home,” McGee said. “It only took about one month, working with the them on critical issues like water before I realized that I couldn’t have been more wrong. These council members were putting in 50-60 hours a week to represent the districts. It’s not just a full-time job, it’s more than a full-time job.
“I was a banker who had the facts wrong,” McGee said in an interview Monday. “Now I realize a lot of people out there simply do not know the facts, either. If they did, they’d vote for paying salaries.”
Right now, most mayoral and council candidates fall into one of several categories: wealthy individuals who don’t need the pay; retired professionals; individuals married to working spouses; and young professionals willing to hold a council seat without pay and use it as a stepping stone to higher office.
“You do have people taking a vow of poverty but they can’t sustain that lifestyle for very long,” McGee said.
High turnover has undermined council stability in recent years, even after voters relaxed term limits in 2008. The mayor and council members can hold office for eight years, but if history is any guide, few will reach that length of service under the current pay scheme.
SensiblePayForSA aims to raise substantial funds to mount a serious media campaign between now and the start of early voting on April 27, a period of time that will include Fiesta, April 16-26, when many would-be voters are likely to be distracted by the festivities. The San Antonio, Hispanic, and North Chambers of Commerce all support the initiative, and McGee said that he and his fellow committee members are finding widespread support as they begin their fundraising efforts.
Even if voters approve the measure, council members still will make less than a first year school teacher, a rookie cop or firefighter, a public health nurse, and the salaries set for many other open city positions. And, except for Fort Worth, elected officials in San Antonio will remain the lowest paid elected municipal officeholders in the state, ahead of El Paso, but well behind Austin.
Does 21st century San Antonio want to be known as a city wed to a 65-year-old city charter that prohibits paying its officeholders even as its aspires to compete nationally with other cities working to attract smart workers and their families? That’s one of the questions that will be answered by voters, who rejected council pay the last time it was put to a vote in 2004. The U.S. Census now ranks San Antonio as the seventh largest city and the 25th largest metro in the nation, but were it to measure compensation for elected municipal leaders, San Antonio would find itself at the bottom of U.S. city rankings.
What supporters of the measure fear most is voter apathy and voter ignorance of the issue. Recent special elections to fill state and local officeholder vacancies have failed to draw more than 6-7% of registered voters to the polls. That means more than nine out of every 10 registered voters aren’t bothering to show up and participate in the political process. Such apathy can skew results, with public opinion trending one way, and election outcomes trending another since so few citizens exercise their right to vote.
Bexar County Commissioners, for example, virtually never face public opposition or even much interest in their pay, yet the county’s senior executive, County Judge Nelson Wolff, earns $126,219 a year and County Commissioners earn $107,862 a year. Like their counterparts at City Hall, Judge Wolff and the County Commissioners rely on a professional staff to manage the county’s budget and business affairs on a day-to-day basis, just as City Manager Sheryl Sculley and her staff manage the City’s budget and business affairs on a day-to-day basis. Some of the very same people who oppose professional salaries for the mayor and City Council seem indifferent or perhaps unaware of what their county elected leaders are paid.
“It’s very important to give officeholders at City Hall decent pay, just as we get decent pay here at the county,” Nelson Wolff said. “For eight years I served on the City Council, and there was no pay, no retirement benefits, that’s tough. For a young person who wants to serve, or for a person who has to forgo their existing income, it’s not fair. The City Council is the board of directors of a major corporation and they should be compensated.
“It wasn’t until 1976 when single member districts came along that the workload of council members really picked up,” Wolff said. “It takes virtually all your time to stay on top of the issues and address constituent services. I know there is concern that this might not be the right time, but the issue is simple and we’ve debated it for a long time. People know we are a big city and people’s minds are changing. We live in a different world and we need to step up and compensate our officials.”
Last year the City replaced 13,000 stolen or damaged trash cans, McGee said, at a total cost of $750,000, while paying the mayor and council members will only cost $518,000 in a $1.1 billion budget.
*Featured/top image: San Antonio City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.