In September, in a move required by law, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a three-person commission to review the compensation levels of elected officials. Those salaries are supposed to be reviewed by a commission comprised of private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge of management and compensation every four years, but out of reluctance by mayors to make a move that is generally perceived by the public as an attempt to give themselves and their colleagues a raise, the salaries of New York City’s elected officials have gone unchanged since 2006.
At the hearing, Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union, reiterated the good government group’s support for salary increases for the city’s elected officials provided that they are accompanied by other reforms. Citizens Union argues that salary increases should be prospective, only taking hold in 2018, after the next city elections; come with elimination of “lulus” or stipends, for chairing City Council committees; and with a cap on outside income to no more than 25 percent of one’s city salary, with full disclosure.
The commission includes Fritz Schwarz, Jr., the Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice; Jill Bright, Chief Administrative Officer at Condé Nast; and Paul Quintero, Chief Executive Office at ACCION EAST, Inc. It will likely release its recommendations around compensation levels for the Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough Presidents, City Council members, and District Attorneys by the end of the year, though the commission is already passing the initial timeline set in the mayor’s announcement. Public comment is open until December 3.
The mayor may accept, reject, or amend the findings of the commission, sending recommendations to the City Council for a vote on any new salaries before they head back to the mayor for approval into law.
Though some have said that issues with Council members and the mayor voting on their own salary increases could be avoided by simply pegging salary adjustments to one of a couple of economic measures, like the cost of living, Schwarz expressed dismay with the idea of proposing automatic COLA increases. “What worries me about that concept are two things: one, ordinary citizens are not guaranteed COLA increase; and two, if a government official’s future raises are automatic, it removes any democratic accountability, so they get their extra pay but they don’t have to go through the rigor and sometimes hard public position of saying there should be more pay for my office,” Schwarz said. COLA increases were not recommended by Citizens Union.
At the second hearing, Borough President Gail Brewer (Manhattan) also supported making any salary increase prospective. In the testimony she submitted to the commission, Brewer said, “I believe this commission should strongly urge the Mayor to do two things: First, commit now to empanel another pay raise commission in 2019; and second, to introduce legislation that contains an effective date of January 1, 2018, the first day of the next term of office for all New York City elected offices.”
In his testimony, Dadey pointed out that eliminating stipends for Council Committee Chairs is supported by 31 members of the Council. These stipends, known as lulus, currently range from $5,000 to $25,000 and, Dadey says, have contributed to the creation of unnecessary committees. With 38 committees, six subcommittees, and two task forces, nearly every Council member receives a stipend in addition to their $112,500 salary.
The large number of committees, Dadey said, allows “the speaker to use the lulus as a way in which to extract loyalty on particular issues which they would not otherwise do.” Only truly senior leadership positions like the Speaker and Majority Leader should receive stipends, Dadey added. “We have more committees in the City Council than in the House of Representatives in the US Congress,” Dadey said, adding that the number of committees Council members serve on restricts their ability to focus on certain issues. These points raised Schwarz’s eyebrows.
In her testimony, Brewer, who was a Council member before being elected Borough President, also expressed support for eliminating stipends. “Lulus should be abolished,” she wrote. “I think lulus have become a way of giving all but the least favored Council Members added compensation.”
Schwarz agreed that the lulus “can completely mislead people.” Due to public pressure, eleven Council members have refused to accept lulus this year, according to the Daily News editorial board.
Since being a member of the City Council is only considered a part-time job, Council members are permitted to earn outside income. Eliminating outside income altogether would detract from the goal of attracting candidates with varied private sector experience, the good government group says. Currently, fewer City Council members earn income from an outside job than at any time before.
Brewer suggested that the job of a City Council member should be considered a full-time job.
At the first commission hearing, Schwarz pointed out the merit in keeping the position part-time, saying “A lawyer who joins the government brings something valuable, as does a community organizer, as does a businessman or woman - it’s important to have people in the Council who have varied life experiences.”
According to New York City code, in making its recommendations, the commission must consider the duties and responsibilities of each position, the current salary of the position and the length of time since the last change, and any change in the cost of living, as well as a number of other factors.
The salaries of New York’s 64 elected officials has gone unchanged since 2006, though only 27 have held office for more than one term, and 22 were first elected to their posts just two years ago.
The 2006 commission’s recommendations resulted in a 25 percent salary increase for Council members (up to the current $112,500 per year base) and a 15.4 percent increase for the mayor, from $195,000 to $225,000.
Some elected officials, however, have been seeking raises much higher than what good government groups support. According to the Daily News, a handful of Council members have been discreetly supporting a 71 percent increase. It’s something Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called “ridiculous” and that Dadey, among others, have also panned. Mark-Viverito has not expressed an opinion about raises and says she wants to see the results of the commission's work.
Earlier this November, the Daily News also reported the city’s five district attorneys, who currently make $190,000 annually, wrote a letter to the Quadrennial Advisory Commission requesting a 32 percent increase to their salaries, up to $250,000.
For his part, Mayor de Blasio has indicated through a spokesperson that he would “decline” accepting any pay hike “for the duration” of his current term.
Though the Council and the Mayor have approved the commission’s recommended salary increases in the past, recommendations for reforms have gone unheeded.
NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker