Just how much should city council members in a cash-strapped city make?
Hartford's nine council members now make $15,000 for their service. Earlier this year, a divided council decided to ask voters on Nov. 4 whether they should get a raise, effective 2012, to $26,650.
Some on the council think that the council needs to pay a higher amount to encourage participation of the city's poorer residents; others think a raise is inappropriate in a time when the city faces deficits and layoffs.
"We are in fact currently the highest-paid council in the state of Connecticut, and we're looking at a pay increase of 80 percent," said Councilman Kenneth Kennedy, who tried unsuccessfully at Tuesday's city council meeting to remove the item from the Nov. 4 ballot. "Public service is just that. It's public service. The pay is not going to be adequate to the responsibility and job that you're doing."
The discussion was particularly poignant on Tuesday night, as the council's chamber was crammed tight with union members protesting the threatened layoff of 120 city workers. The city will likely lay people off to deal with deficits — $6 million last year, $8 million this year, more than $40 million next year.
"I don't see how we can look the folks we may have to lay off in the face and say, 'Yes, we want to lay some folks off, but we want to in fact raise the next council's salary,'" Kennedy said.
Councilman Luis Cotto took the opposite view, saying that the relatively low pay guarantees that only a certain, predictable class of politicians can afford to serve on the council.
"What ends up happening here is you have the same faces over and over again," Cotto said. "I'm hoping that we can take steps to try include the 'Joe Six Pack.'"
That reference to the presidential race got Democratic Majority Leader rJo Winch laughing. But then Winch — who minutes earlier said the city should consider delaying pay raises for staff in order to prevent layoffs — said that the council needs a pay raise.
She said that the council's pay is "still below poverty levels," and that she knows from her travels to the National League of Cities meetings that there are city council members nationwide who make between $30,000 and $80,000. Plus, the council needs more people to serve.
"If the salary is going to cause them to do that, then I think that that's all the more better," Winch said. "I would like the person who …wants to get out and service the community not to be deterred because they also can't provide for their family."
In other news, the council formally appointed a charter revision commission. The commission will report back to the council no later than June 1, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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