Wage hike for Fresno council makes sense, but members should vote for it in public

The Fresno City Council, shown in an earlier meeting, will consider hiking its salary when it meets Thursday.
The Fresno City Council, shown in an earlier meeting, will consider hiking its salary when it meets Thursday. Fresno Bee file

On its face, a proposal to hike the yearly salary of every Fresno City Council member by $15,000 is enough to make any taxpayer go, “Whoa, wait a minute.”

But there are some good reasons for that pay bump to happen when the council takes up the idea at its meeting Thursday.

The increase is being championed by Councilman Oliver Baines, who will be stepping off the seven-member panel at month’s end. Since he will no longer have a stake in the money, he can carry the legislation without fear of political repercussions.

Baines proposes to raise the annual salary from $65,000 to $80,000, with an added $5,000 for the council president, a post that rotates each year among the members.

Here is reason No. 1 why such a hike is appropriate: The last time the council upped its pay was 2006. Using the annual rate of inflation since then, the council’s pay would have risen to about $80,000 if it had been adjusted for the cost of living.

Reason No. 2: By making the wage better, the job of council member will be made more appealing, and citizens with a heart for public service might be willing to run and take part in local government.

Being a council member in nearly any city in California is challenging. There is oversight and approval of the annual budget, which means having a working knowledge of basic services like police, fire, parks and recreation and utilities. Council members also have to engage in legal issues from time to time, including environmental and labor matters. Growth and development projects must be considered. Constituent needs must be attended to, and there are outside forces — state and federal governments, even social movements — that can raise issues.

Layer on the unique challenges of Fresno, such as chronic unemployment and high poverty, and the job can be daunting. And at times, it goes beyond a 40-hour work week.

A second aspect of Baines’ proposal is to tie future increases to 66 percent of the base pay given to Fresno County supervisors. It is on that point that Councilman Garry Bredefeld says he cannot support the proposal, and he makes a compelling argument.

Bredefeld believes council raises should not be automatic and out of sight, but handled as will occur Thursday, during public session in a formal vote. “Public officials ought to be out in the open and accountable for their vote,” he says.

When it comes to compensation for council members, cities in California vary widely. According to state data as of 2014 (the most recent survey done by the state Department of Human Relations), Los Angeles council members earned $173,000 per year. San Francisco members were paid $101,000. No surprises there — they are world-class cities.

However, San Diego council members earned $65,000, while Bakersfield council members got just $7,000. Those communities have been traditional Republican strongholds where the less-government-is-better ethic prevails.

It comes down to how each city wants to value its elected officials. An annual wage of $80,000 seems reasonable for Fresno members, given no hike has occurred for 12 years. But the council should maintain its ability to vote on future hikes on a case-by-case basis and not be granted them automatically.

Fiscal prudence is a good thing, and every taxpayer-funded government should operate with it. But any employee would want his or her pay to go up to keep pace with the cost of living. The City Council members should be afforded the same consideration.