Having recently approved salary increases for almost every employee group in City Hall, the Palo Alto City Council is now considering bumping the compensation for a group that hasn't had a raise since 2001: itself.
The council is set to consider on Jan. 20 a proposal to raise the monthly stipend that members receive from $600 to $1,000, an increase that would take effect in 2017. That's two years before the council is set to shrink from nine seats to seven, thanks to the voters' decision to approve Measure D last November.
The proposal to change compensation for council members emerged last year in the context of other reforms, including the reduction of the council's size and the extension of term limits from two to three four-year terms. The proposal by then-Mayor Nancy Shepherd, then-Vice Mayor Liz Kniss and former Councilwoman Gail Price to place the extension of term limits on the ballot fell one vote shy. Yet the council's decision to move ahead with the seat reduction (which was placed on the ballot after a 5-4 vote) prompted the council to also consider the issue of salaries. With fewer people handling the ever growing workload, more compensation would make sense.
In June, Price and Councilman Larry Klein made an argument that raising salaries would be a "democratic move" because it would make the prospect of running for council more affordable for residents. Though he noted that running for council won't make anyone rich, even with the increase, the pay bump could help candidates pay for child care or other services that would be required to accommodate a workload that he estimated to be 25 to 30 hours a week. Price agreed and observed that some people who are interested in serving "may not have circumstances that allow it."
The salary bump is far from a done deal. The committee's recommendation in June to move along with the salary increase passed by a 2-1 vote, with Greg Scharff dissenting and Greg Schmid absent. With both proponents of salary increases no longer on the council (Klein termed out and Price concluded her term and decided not to seek another one), it's not certain if the new council will want to start off the year by approving a salary hike for itself, albeit one that wouldn't kick in until 2017.
Council salaries currently range widely on the Peninsula, with some cities offering their elected leaders more than a thousand dollars a month and others offering nothing at all.
Sunnyvale is at the high end of the scale, with council members receiving a monthly allotment of $2,194 and the mayor getting $2,926 (Daly City, which has five council members, offers monthly salaries of $1,414. In Fremont, council members receive $1,407 salaries, while the mayor gets $2,211. Santa Clara, meanwhile, gives its council members an annual consumer-price-index increase of 5 percent (last year, council members had monthly salaries of $811.68; the mayor's was $1,352.82). San Jose is the big outlier, with council members getting $6,750 a month and the mayor getting $9,500.
On the lower end of the scale are cities like Monte Sereno, Atherton and Hillsborough, where council members get no compensation at all. Other Peninsula cities have salaries similar to Palo Alto's. In Menlo Park, council members get monthly salaries of $640. In Mountain View, the figure last year was $600, though the mayor getting $700.
In November, voters in Mountain View increased compensation of their elected leaders to $1,000 a month after about 60 percent supported Measure A, authorizing the increase.
On Jan. 20, the Palo Alto will consider doing the same. Scharff, who in June was the only committee member to vote against the salary bump, pointed at the list of other jurisdictions and observed that Palo Alto currently falls in the middle, which he said is "where we should be" (the average council salary among the surveyed cities, not counting San Jose, is $749 a month). He urged his colleagues to resist the temptation to increase compensation just because the economy is currently doing well.
"Because times are good, that doesn't mean we should necessarily have our handout," Scharff said at the June 17 meeting.
The council can legally increase its salary by 5 percent per each year since the last increase. The council last received a raise in May 2001, which means 15 full calendar years would have passed by the time new increases kick in. Given the amount of time that has passed since the last salary bump, the council could potentially authorize salaries of $1,050, effectively giving itself a 75 percent pay bump, according to a staff report released Thursday afternoon.