Mecklenburg commissioners ponder pay raises – for themselves

George Dunlap (right, with fellow Mecklenburg commissioner Matthew Ridenhour) wants to raise commissioners’ pay and double the length of their terms.
George Dunlap (right, with fellow Mecklenburg commissioner Matthew Ridenhour) wants to raise commissioners’ pay and double the length of their terms. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Saying the job has become increasingly complex and time-consuming, Mecklenburg County commissioners are studying whether to increase their $25,177 base salaries to match the pay of similar boards in like-sized counties.

Commissioner George Dunlap raised the issue this week as chairman of the board’s performance review committee after the full board asked county staffers in January to compare their pay to other commissioners in North Carolina and other Southeastern counties.

Dunlap, a Democrat, unveiled that data Tuesday to his committee. It showed that while Mecklenburg commissioners are paid more than in most North Carolina counties, their salaries fall dramatically short of what commissioners are paid in counties in Virginia and Georgia with similar populations.

Dunlap said the county historically has made similar comparisons for county employees, “but we had not done it for the board.” He asked his committee members Tuesday if “there was an interest in moving to what the market says is a fair rate – given the fact that the scope of our job has increased tremendously” over the past 10 years.

The committee voted unanimously to send the issue to the full board after more data is gathered.

In an email to commissioners, Dunlap listed several reasons to “unashamedly” raise their pay. “The cost of gas. The increased number of hours it takes to do the job,” he wrote. “The fact that we are underpaid when compared to other districts of similar size populations who also have part-time commissioners.”

Tuesday’s data showed:

▪ Mecklenburg’s commissioners are paid a salary of $25,177, with the chair making $31,472. Starting July 1, they’ll make about $500 more. But over the past 10 years, they’ve averaged about a 2.8 percent pay increase annually.

That’s more than eight other North Carolina counties – all smaller than Mecklenburg – found by staff except Buncombe County, which pays its chairman $35,584 and six commissioners $26,475, said deputy County Manager Chris Peek. Commissioners in Wake County, nearly the same size as Mecklenburg, are paid less at nearly $21,974 a year. Its chairman gets $24,598.

▪ Cobb and Fulton counties in the Atlanta area – all with smaller populations – pay their part-time commissioners dramatically more, Peek said. Commissioners in Cobb are paid as much as $44,000 and in Fulton about $43,100.

▪ In Arlington County, Va., near Washington and much smaller than Mecklenburg, commissioners are paid $51,480.

‘Frank discussion’

Tuesday, committee members acknowledged that pay raises for commissioners could be controversial, particularly after the new county budget doesn’t include money requested by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for 2 percent raises for all employees – and some groups went unfunded.

Commissioner Bill James, a Republican committee member, said it was reasonable to have “a frank discussion about pay,” but the full board would have to find a fair process to implement the raises.

“Clearly if the idea is that our pay and other elected officials’ pay is out of whack, then the real question is what process would we use to do that,” James said.

He said the process should include a public hearing.

The major responsibilities of the nine commissioners include adopting the county’s annual budget, setting the property tax rate and establishing priorities on county needs – particularly those related to health, education, welfare and the environment. They also make appointments to citizen advisory groups.

Outside those official responsibilities, some commissioners say they spend 10 to 15 hours a week answering emails and phone messages, meeting with constituents and representing the county at ribbon-cuttings, graduations and other civic functions.

James and commissioner Jim Puckett, another Republican committee member, said ignoring the pay issue might discourage people from running for the board.

Increasing workload

The question of fair pay for elected officials has been debated for years in the state legislature, where non-officer legislators are paid about $14,000 a year.

James said they end up living “off their campaign contributions.”

Puckett, re-elected last November to the same seat he left eight years ago, said the job is significantly more time-consuming. “You don’t do this for the money,” he said. “I will tell you for people who have jobs it costs them. This is a net loss job for me.

“I was gone for eight years and in my six months back, it has taken an awful lot of time and effort.”

Democratic commissioner Ella Scarborough, another committee member who had served on Charlotte City Council until 1997, agreed with Puckett, saying the job had become more complex.

“I didn’t get elected to be compensated,” she said. “But the demand on elected officials has changed.”

As soon as word got out that Dunlap’s committee was discussing pay raises, commissioner Pat Cotham, a Democrat, registered her opposition on Twitter. To the Observer, she asked: “We are not giving teachers a raise or lowering taxes, so why should politicians get a raise?”

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour agreed but said it was a fair, if not “touchy,” discussion. He said any raise should be phased in. “It’s always a touchy subject to discuss pay increases,” he said. “It doesn’t send a good message to the community when we didn’t offer those increases to CMS – and we didn’t cut taxes.”

But if the board ignores the issue, he said, “It limits who can run for office – either those independently wealthy, or people who have job with a flexible schedule, or spouses that work, or retired people. The common guy working hard gets left out.”

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