Some Gainesville elected leaders are looking to give themselves and others a significant raise at their next City Commission meeting, a salary hike that some say is long overdue.
If approved, the pay for the city’s leaders would nearly double from $37,000 to about $71,000 in October 2023 by using a state formula based on population that is similar for state constitutional officers.
Those pushing for the pay bump say they hope the change attracts more qualified candidates to run for office in the future. The annual fiscal impact for all commissioner salaries could be as much as $403,000.
“Our neighbors and residents deserve better and to have full-time commissioners dedicated to them and the city,” said Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos.
The proposal comes as three members of the seven-seat board prepare to leave office because of term limits.
Under the change, the mayor’s salary would increase from $47,200 to $88,700 next fiscal year. Commissioner Harvey Ward, who will take over as mayor on Jan. 5, was the only member who voted against the measure because it would affect him more than others.
But that didn’t stop others from giving themselves the nod for a pay bump. Commissioners Cynthia Chestnut and Desmon Duncan-Walker each pushed the pay bump forward for a vote on Thursday, citing that the current structure only allows well-off individuals to seek office.
“This is the happiest I’ve ever been in public service, and the reason I’m happy is that I’m retired and it’s not a salary I depend on. And I’m free, so it makes a difference,” Chestnut said. “However, this pay does create an elitist system. Only people who, like myself, are retired or independently wealthy can really serve because this is not a part-time job. It’s a full-time plus.”
The job comes with a price
Commissioners’ current salaries inch near the poverty line (for a family of four) of $33,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But in the short term, those will be automatically bumped up to almost $40,400 and the mayor will see an increase to $51,400, per ordinance on Jan. 9, 2023. The mayor received more because the role has more responsibilities.
In 2019, the city’s Charter Review Commissioner floated the idea of raising Gainesville commissioners’ pay to a state formula similar to the County Commission. The plan could have gone on the ballot for voters to decide but is within the power of the commission already to do so.
Alachua County commissioners receive an annual salary total $89,700, based on the state formula, which can fluctuate from year to year. Mayor Lauren Poe said he has never heard anyone complain about those figures.
The pay for city officials also hasn’t been updated in nearly 20 years, advocates argued. Much has changed in that time, including rising home prices and the population growth of more than 20,000 people.
Despite the lower pay, Gainesville also differs from the county by being a full-service municipality where commissioners are in charge of a utility that requires an in-depth understanding of an electric, water and wastewater system. Leaders also have tackled a long list of complex issues, including an affordable housing crisis and homelessness.
It comes with a price.
Poe said he quit his teaching job at Santa Fe College after 24 years for the betterment of his mental health after juggling both jobs.
“It was not healthy for me to hold a full-time job and try to be mayor,” he said. “It’s put an incredible financial hardship on my family. We’ve dipped significantly into my retirement just to keep paying my mortgage and all the other things.”
Like many elected officials, Hayes-Santos said city commissioners are oftentimes called upon for public events but sometimes can’t go because of their other job or family obligations. Commissioners agreed that the change will allow more qualified professionals a chance at being elected.
“There are a lot of people who I’ve talked to in the past, people I felt would’ve been good people to be on the City Commission, that didn’t run because they couldn’t afford it,” he said.
Commissioners are set to vote on the first of two readings at Thursday’s meeting at City Hall, located at 200 E. University Ave.
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Gainesville commission weighs decision to nearly double own salary