Pay hikes for pols? Let’s talk first

The Observer editorial board

George Dunlap  wants to raise commissioners’ pay.
George Dunlap wants to raise commissioners’ pay. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Mecklenburg County commissioners appeared on the verge of giving themselves a huge pay raise Tuesday with little public debate, but wisely hit the pause button after the plan came to light.

Commissioner George Dunlap, a Democrat, is leading an effort to approve a sizable pay hike. He told fellow commissioners in an email just after midnight Monday that the increase “is to be voted on as part of the budget” Tuesday night.

The question of raising commissioners’ pay is a legitimate topic for debate. The problem? That debate was not happening. Commissioners did not say a word about the pay hike at any of the many budget meetings open to the public. It was not part of their straw vote last week, an exercise that typically makes official approval of the budget a mere formality.

Something as fundamental as dramatically raising politicians’ pay (while other workers continue to struggle) deserves thoughtful, in-depth discussion by the full board, with a chance for the public to participate. Quietly slipping it into the budget hours or moments before the final vote – leaving little or no time to debate it – would have been sneaky and irresponsible. Mecklenburg taxpayers deserve better.

After news of the proposed pay hike came out, five commissioners met Tuesday afternoon and discussed it. With reporters and a TV camera watching, they agreed not to vote on it Tuesday night but to take the idea to the full board for consideration later. That was entirely appropriate.

Mecklenburg commissioners are paid $25,177 this year. While some would consider that modest, it is the highest of any urban county in North Carolina except Buncombe. Mecklenburg commissioners make about $4,000 more than those in Wake, which has the same population, and $3,000 to $8,000 more than those in Guilford (Greensboro), Forsyth (Winston-Salem), Durham, Cumberland (Fayetteville) and New Hanover (Wilmington). They make nearly $7,000 more than Charlotte City Council members.

County staff also surveyed six counties outside North Carolina and found Mecklenburg mostly lags. Commissioners here rank below those in Arlington, Va., and in the Atlanta area, but above those in Knoxville, Tenn. Others, like Nashville, Columbia, Orlando and Richmond, were not included in the survey.

There are sound arguments for boosting commissioners’ pay. The good ones work long hours. Higher pay might attract more-qualified candidates. And they might currently be receiving less than the market rate. (“The cost of gas,” a reason Dunlap cited, is not among the good reasons.)

At the same time, commissioner pay is one place where Mecklenburg should be content to not top the rankings. Any increase should be measured, phased in over time and first applied to the next board, not the sitting one.

In a related move, Dunlap is exploring doubling the length of commissioner terms from two years to four years. Voters would cast ballots on that idea this November, and the longer terms would take effect in the following election. We think that’s a bad idea because it gives voters less opportunity to replace poor performers. Voters have struck that change down before and we suspect would do so again.

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