Almost a year after Springfield voters approved a ballot question to extend that city's mayoral term from two years to four, city councilors are bracing themselves to take up an assuredly more contentious follow-up issue: whether the mayor's salary should also be increased, from its current level of $95,000 a year.
The term extension and salary increase were both recommended in a comprehensive report on long-term planning in the city by the Urban Land Institute in 2006. Both measures are also backed by the local Chamber of Commerce, which sees them as a way to improve the depth and quality of the pool of potential mayoral candidates.
And many city residents agreed, with 70 percent of voters backing the term extension.
But voters won't have a direct say on whether to raise the mayor's salary. By law, that power lies with the City Council—a situation that could create all kinds of politically awkward situations for councilors, who might find themselves caught between their public positions and personal ambitions.
The debate over the mayor's salary is a "political hot potato," said Ward 2 City Councilor Mike Fenton, one of the few councilors who've taken a strong position in support of the raise.
In a city where the median household income is about $36,000, it's hard to imagine many residents are up nights worrying about whether their mayor can scrape by on a mere $95,000 a year. But Fenton argues that they should be concerned about whether that salary is enough to attract the best candidates for the difficult job of leading their city. The mayor, he points out, is the CEO of a $534 million enterprise, yet makes less than almost every department head in City Hall. (Indeed, Fenton notes, about 75 city employees have higher annual salaries than the mayor—and that isn't including police officers and others whose overtime work bumps their annual take-home pay higher than the mayor's.)
"I'm not trying to belittle the amount of money the mayor gets paid," Fenton said. But while being mayor might be a relatively well compensated job, it's also a tough and often thankless one. Right now, Fenton said, many accomplished professionals in the city who could do the job well would likely have to take a pay cut to do it. Improving the salary, he believes, would make it a more attractive leap for them to take.
"How do we attract the best possible person to lead this city into the future?" Fenton said. "You've got to be able to have a competitive salary."
Earlier this year, the Council sent the Finance Committee a proposal to consider raising the mayor's salary to an unspecified amount. The committee, in turn, asked Council President Jose Tosado to create a special commission to look into the question, including what the salary should be, and how it should be determined in the future.
The commission is expected to include elected officials, residents, members of the business community and City Hall representatives. Tosado, who has asked councilors to recommend members, told the Advocate he will announce the commission's make-up shortly.
Fenton, who sits on the Finance Committee, hopes to be on the commission. In addition to increasing the salary, he'd like to see the Council create a mechanism to automatically handle future increases—perhaps by tying the pay to a financial index, or by writing in a set annual increase of a few percentage points. Either way, Fenton said, such a move would preclude future political tangles over whether, and how much, to increase the salary.
"I just want to set it and have a fair way to increase it in the future," he said. "The City Council is the only one who can change it, and we never want to change it."
Indeed, removing the issue of the mayor's salary from their plate would probably come as a relief to some councilors—particularly those who envision themselves one day sitting in the mayor's office. Councilors who support a raise will, no doubt, be accused of insensitivity to the city's many poor and struggling residents. And those suspected of having aspirations for the mayor's job will be accused of self-serving motivations, to boot.
Perhaps the most interesting person to watch as this drama unfolds will be Tosado, who's widely considered the most likely candidate to challenge incumbent Mayor Domenic Sarno in the 2011 election. Tosado has yet to make any public announcements about his plans, although he does acknowledge his interest in the job. (And, in what is perhaps a telling sign, his criticisms of Sarno have been increasingly more barbed in recent months. "All I see Domenic doing is cutting ribbons," Tosado recently told the Advocate. "He's really good at that, but the job should be more than that.")
Tosado says he's firmly opposed to a mayoral raise; given the overall economic state of Springfield, he said, such a move would be both "irresponsible" and "an insult to our citizens."
His criticisms aside, if Tosado does make a successful bid for mayor, he would benefit from an increase to the salary. Meanwhile, another city councilor who's also frequently talked of as a potential mayoral candidate, Tim Rooke, is a strong proponent of increasing the salary, arguing that it would dramatically improve the field of potential candidates.
But, Rooke said, don't expect him to be among that field. "It's not on my radar screen. I'm trying to build my business as an insurance agent," he told the Advocate last week. Rooke said he's flattered that people might see him as mayoral material, "but I don't see it in the cards today."