Merit pay: One idea for mayoral raises would link them to the fortunes of the citizenship. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Their reasoning does makes sense, unless
you think about it: It’s not like the mayor is going to move to Albany
because the pay there is better. Nor do we have to worry about
attracting out-of town talent. University Hospital and Syracuse
University pay their top executives six-figure salaries because they
are competing in a national market.
That logic does not apply to the mayor’s
job. If we had a different municipal structure you might make the case
for keeping the salary competitive. Towns that have appointed managers
can import them—cities that elect their mayors have to grow them
Although it is a tiny piece of the
budget, nothing gets a rise out of the public like increasing the
mayor’s pay. The local blogosphere overflowed with complaints. Some
believed that a raise was in order, but the magnitude of it was not.
Others were willing to consider an adjustment, but didn’t think the
current occupant of City Hall deserved a raise based on his
performance. Some of the more thoughtful commentators noted that it
seemed unusual to make such a raise retroactive.
I have to agree with this last
objection. A raise for a public official should not be retroactive. It
should not even go into effect until the current mayoral term ends.
This would put the city in line with the model set forth in the U.S.
Constitution, which doesn’t allow members of Congress to vote pay
increases for themselves, but rather only for their successors.
The 27th Amendment reads as follows: “No
law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and
Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of
Representatives shall have intervened.” This amendment seems sensible
enough, yet it took 180 years to be passed. It was initially proposed
in 1789 along with the original amendments that eventually became the
Bill of Rights, but sat in limbo all those many years until a Texas
legislator took up the issue in the 1980s. It was finally ratified in
1992. Why did it take so long? Obviously there wasn’t a big appetite
among legislators for a bill to limit their own pay increases.
The amendment does not cover the case of
our mayor. It deals only with the legislature, not the executive
branch, and it only deals with the federal government, not states or
municipalities. But it is a good rule to follow. It is simply meant to
prevent federal legislators, who have the power to raise pay, from
raising their own. They can only boost the paycheck of the next guy or
gal to sit in their seat. Given the high rate at which incumbents are
re-elected, however, they are often giving themselves a raise, but at
least it takes a year for the new rate to kick in.
This seems as good a time as any to
introduce my proposal for merit pay for public officials, with the
clear understanding that it will never be enacted. The great Catch-22
in this issue is that the very people we are asking to enact it are
those who would be affected by it. But they may surprise us yet.
The proposal is this: Each public
official shall be compensated according to the average household income
of the people he or she represents. Using this formula, the mayor of
Syracuse would earn a healthy $44,727, which is just 1 ½ times the
amount of the raise.
To those who would object that this
would deprive the mayor’s family of certain advantages, I plead guilty.
However, unlike many of us, the mayor would have the power to improve
his lot by working to improve the lot of the citizenry. A mayor could
take advantage of the great array of housing incentives and subsidies
available to people who make a commitment to fix up inner-city
A mayor could send his or her children
to any one of our excellent city schools. A mayor working under this
proposal would be an eager proponent of the Say Yes to Education plan
to provide college tuition for kids who go through the city school
system. And if a living wage is enforced and expanded—well, the mayor
gets a raise. If he or she brings higher paying jobs into the city, his
or her payday gets a bit sweeter.
If we lose out on a big project, and per
capita income in the city drops, the mayor takes a hit, too. (Good news
for prospective candidates: We are on an upswing. That median household
income figure is up nearly 15 percent since 2000, according to the
Census). If we win, you win. If we lose, so do you. If such a system
were put in place across the board, we wouldn’t have to listen to
politicians acting as if they feel our pain. They really would feel it.
We could make sure of that.