Council pay increase may be good for Birmingham

Birmingham City Council
Birmingham City Council

I’m confident this opinion piece will make many of you crazy.

But before you beat me up, please take a moment and read what I have to say.  If you still disagree, then feel free to respond.

Our Birmingham City Council increased its pay from $15,000 to $50,000 a year–plus expenses, effective 2017.

The public and media response has been ugly.

I’m not saying $50,000 is the right amount and I’m not comfortable with the way the legislation was passed, but it’s possible a pay increase is the right thing for Birmingham.

Government should be run like a business

Most of you will agree that government should be run like a business.

The most successful companies recruit good people and pay them a competitive wage.

We pay our Council members $15,000 a year and the amount hasn’t been increased in two decades.

The City of Birmingham is a large business with a budget of $400 million.  How can Birmingham attract a large number of strong qualified candidates when the pay is so low?

If I paid my top managers (or even my employees) $15,000 a year I’d be bankrupt by next month.

It doesn’t matter what you pay politicians—they’re all up to no good

People say, “It makes no difference what you pay elected officials—they’re just going to look out for themselves and screw the rest of us.”

Lack of trust and disappointment with our elected officials is rampant across America.  How else do you explain Donald Trump?  He’s an example of the perfect ‘non-politician.’

Yet we live in the most prosperous, productive, and successful country in the history of the world.

We have many good and honest politicians.  If that were not the case, America would crumble.  So if we are going to survive as a country we should be willing to pay our elected officials a fair wage.

Our politicians and our political process may be imperfect, but I sure don’t want to live anywhere else.

The average Birmingham citizen earns $31,467—how do we justify $50,000?

The media reminds us that the average citizen of Birmingham earns a median household income of $31,467 and our City Council wants to pay it’s members almost twice that much.

As a business owner, I don’t want my company to be managed by an average person. Many folks in Birmingham are old and poor and may be on social security or welfare–which brings down the average pay.  Just because some folks in a city are poor doesn’t mean that their elected leaders should be poorly paid and consequently less qualified.

The average household income in Mt. Brook is $131,281.  Would it be appropriate to tie the average household income in communities rich and poor to the average income of their citizens?

What can happen when you pay people too little?

Paying your employees poorly has its consequences.

In November of last year, Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Patrick Cannon, was incarcerated into Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown.  Cannon was arrested in March and accused of accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from FBI agents and a Charlotte strip club owner.

Yes, there are dishonest politicians outside of Jefferson County.

We should probably not be surprised by Mayor Cannon’s actions.  He was earning $23,052 a year as Mayor.

It’s reasonable to assume that folks who are poorly paid may be more likely to find creative ways to increase their cash flow.

Council members are public servants doing a part-time job

Let’s be realistic.

There may be a few unselfish people who are willing to live as paupers to have the opportunity to serve as public servants—but there aren’t many.  And why should there be?

Most of us have families to raise and other financial responsibilities.

Would you personally be willing to run for City Council, do all the grunt work required, and take abuse from the public for $15,000 a year?

When you increase pay in government or in the private sector, more people run for office or apply for jobs.  The level of candidates improve.

They were sneaky with their pay increase

No matter what any Councillor may have said publicly—I’m pretty sure most Council members felt they had to resort to subterfuge to sneak in their pay increase.

But why did they feel compelled to take the low road?

No matter how they presented their pay increase, the public and media would have gone crazy.  It certainly would have been better to be more open and honest, but it also would have been better to increase pay a little at a time over many years—than to do it all at once.

There’s not a single person reading this piece who would agree to work for a company that was paying the same salary as 20 years ago.

Alabama Legislators attack City Council

Some members of the Alabama Legislature accused the Birmingham City Council of abusing their authority by approving an “excessive” pay raise.

This accusation is actually comical.

These are the same legislators that couldn’t agree on a State budget in a Regular Session.  They also failed to reach an agreement in a Special Session—and now Governor Bentley will have to call a second Special Session–and maybe a third.

It costs the State about $400,000 per Special Session—and each legislator is paid extra for each Special Session.

Senator Gerald Dial, a Republican from Lineville, introduced a resolution during the Regular Session calling on lawmakers to forgo their paychecks during the Special Session. Though it passed the Senate unanimously, the resolution was never considered by the House.

State Senator Jabo Waggoner, a Republican, from Jefferson County said, “”We’ve heard for years, ‘Give us home rule. Give us some local control,'” he said. “Well, we don’t expect when they’re given local control that it’s going to be abused to this extent.”

Well, who’s going to protect us from our State Legislators?

Why government consolidation is needed

Many people have told me that the antics of the Birmingham City Council prove why government consolidation is a bad idea.

I contend that these antics prove that government consolidation is an idea whose time has come.

If we were able to consolidate our county/city government—we would get a fresh new government.  It wouldn’t be our existing City Council making the decisions.  People from all parts of Jefferson County would be able run for office and to vote.

Many complaints  have come from folks who live outside the City of Birmingham (including me).  How can we complain when we don’t live in the City, can’t run for office and can’t vote?  And why should the Birmingham City Council care what we think?

Good pay for a job well done

Birmingham’s enjoying an incredible building boom; and while much of the credit goes to developers, our city leaders deserve credit for their commitment to these projects.  If our political leaders hadn’t had the vision to invest in Railroad Park, Regions Field, and others, Birmingham would still be stuck in a rut.

In addition the City of Birmingham generated a $5 million surplus this year and is investing $6.5 million in an agressive neighborhood clean up effort.

Doesn’t sound too shabby to me.

If you had employees who turned your business around, wouldn’t you consider rewarding them with a generous raise?

This could turn out to be ironic

I received an instant message last week from an community activist saying he was going to organize a campaign to unseat Council members in next year’s election.   Higher pay and a more vibrant Birmingham will definitely attract new and varied candidates–putting the incumbents at risk.

We could conceivably have a brand new Council–wouldn’t that be ironic?

Let’s turn Birmingham around.  Click here to sign up for our newsletter.  There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is co-CEO of AmSher Compassionate Collections and leads Business Development for the Small Business Division of Intermark Group, He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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22 thoughts on “Council pay increase may be good for Birmingham”

  1. *You raise valid points, but you do have to consider: Every penny that goes toward their own paycheck is a penny that doesn’t go toward the good of the people and the City of Birmingham. There are, what, 9 Councilors? So, they each raised their pay by $35,000. Multiply that by the number of Councilors and that ends up being $315,000 that is being diverted from other programs and budget items to the Councilors salary, who do receive expenses paid. 

    Also, it isn’t a fair argument, from my point of view, to say that the low pay will entice politicians to accept bribes or “other forms of compensation.” Corrupt dirt-bags will be corrupt dirt-bags, regardless of their own personal income. And with the State Legislature, they get paid less than the City Councilors did, at $10 a day. And the Governor didn’t “have” to call a Special Session, he did so deliberately because he is not going to accept a budget if it does not include his tax increases, which is the sort of childish, petty move that one might expect out of someone like our current President or the Congressional Leadership.

    1. Dustin, thanks for your well thought out comments. You’ve made some good points. I do think when you raise pay for any job you will get more candidates to apply–public or private. Businesses pay high salaries that you could say take away from the shareholders, but the shareholders feels they can make more money with better talent. Wouldn’t it be the same for government?

  2. *Perhaps, Mr. Sher, perhaps. I presume we will find out after the next city elections if the City does receive better governance with better pay for the officials.

  3. *Not everyone agrees that government should bbe run like a business. Maybe with the efficiency of a well run one, but not with the same goals.Despite the rhetoric of some, businesses have one goal – to make money for the owners and shareholders. Government should bbe run for the benefit of the stakeholders. A subtle, but distinct difference. The comparisons with other entities is essentially childish. “Johnny did it worse, so I should be allowed to do it at least a little.”

    Despite the successes of some years ago, the fact remains that this city government has been tone deaf to the needs of the citizens if it isn’t a sexy issue and they can’t throw a party to celebrate it. Just the handling of the interstate fiasco should be enough to send all of these people packing come election time. It is the single best example of lack of vision by any government body in decades.

    1. Paxton, Granted there are differences between government and business, but I still contend when a business or a government offers greater pay–more candidates apply. This gives the company or the voters more options.

      I totally agree with your opinion on 20/59, but that is a government structure issue. The City of Birmingham alone doesn’t have the clout to have an impact on a powerful State agency like ALDOT. Where were the other 35 cities in Jefferson County? Where was Jefferson County? I, like many others, live outside the City of Birmingham and am impacted by 20/59–where was Vastavia Hills; Trussville; Homewood; etc.? If we were united with a common agenda and vision, we could do much more.

      Thanks for your comments and insight. Please continue to give your feedback.

  4. The “ugliness” of the media response has been based on the amount of the raise (233 percent) and the underhanded way the council went about goting it into effect. There is a case to be made for increasing the council’s pay — IF it becomes a full-time job, and IF the pay is pegged to the median per capita income in the city. There is a fair, open and equitqble way to go about doing this, which the council ignored. 

    As for the idea of running government like a business: Government and business are two different things that cannot and should not be run in the same way. Let’s flip that notion and say that all businesses should be run for public benefit, rather than to make a profit for the owners; does that make sense? “Government should be run like a business” is a phrase that sounds good to people who have no idea what government actually does, how it actually works, or what good government means to the lives of the people it serves. 

    1. Mark, I agree with much of your comments, but the decision wasn’t 100% wrong. There is a case to be made for higher pay. I understand that the increase was 233%, but the last increase was 20 years ago. And after the universal negative reaction, there probably won’t be another increase for 20 more years. And was $15,000 the appropriate pay then? Higher pay will encourage more people to run for office which will give us more options. We want the best people to manage a $400 million budget. I would imagine that if our City Counselors did all they should do that it would be a full time job.

      I don’t agree that the pay should reflect the pay of the citizens as I stated in the article. Citizens of a poor city deserve good candidates.

      I’m thrilled you took the time to comment. You are knowledgeable and insightful and I read every word you write each week. And I encourage everyone to read your work at http://weldbham.com/.

  5. Don’t know all the details but at a glance, it doesn’t look very good.  I am pretty sure our state legislators are not paid as much as this and they are tasked with a much larger budget.  How would we score their performance?

    1. Zane, for our Alabama legislature not to be able to agree on a budget when we are about a month from not being able to function as a State is not a good thing. I feel the legislature should concentrate on doing its job–not trying to micromanage and criticize our local governments. It was announced yesterday Alabama will close down 33 Alabama Drivers License offices for lack of funding. http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/08/state_says_it_will_close_all_b.html

  6. *Okay, so the average Joe in Birmingham makes $31K annually for, we have to assume, is full-time employment (and some may work more than full-time).  Let’s raise the council member pay to that amount.  It is a part-time job with an additional expense account.  I agree if it has been two decades since the last one, an increase is due.  If this had been the approach, with total transparency, and using some logic, the increase may have been passed without nearly as much dissension.

  7. David, as always, you bring up valid points that give pause for consideration.  The comments that ensued reflect the varied points of concern regarding how this hot button issue all went down and also reflects the lack of business savvy of the current council in general.  

    A “savvy” council would’ve presented the facts with statistical analysis, along with a “reasonable” plan of routine salary reviews for the future to overcome the negligence of past “leadership” to ensure and foster progressive leadership for the region.  Most anyone with true business sense would’ve been more apt to buy in to the process had it been handled more intelligently.

    This segways in to operating as a government vs. business.  I do not agree with Mark Kelly’s comment, “Government and business are two different things that cannot and should not be run in the same way.”  He went on to say “that all businesses should be run for public benefit, rather than to make a profit for the owners; does that make sense?”  Actually, it does.  A business that is run well fosters public benefit through it’s tax base, it’s employee’s spending power and the strength of the support services to that business.  A well run Government can do the very same and the “profit” will be progressive, positive growth rather than a flight to locate outside that particular tax base, which ultimately dilutes the strength of profits for the overall region.  

    My other concern is the pool of talent to run in the various districts represented along with the level of educated, informed constituents who will vote their candidates into office.  Sadly, demographics and statistics indicate that some of our council districts are comprised of lower income, less educated individuals.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t well qualified candidates, but the trick will be for these good candidates to educate, empower & sell their respective constituents to make the most informed choice.  Throwing free parties in the park isn’t going to pave their streets or improve their infrastructure to entice businesses to locate to their areas.  I’m concerned that we’ll continue to have more of the same coming out of those areas which will continue to be a weak link for the city in general.  “You’re only as strong as your weakest link.”

    A REGIONAL government would consolidate and dilute some of the bleak statistics and demographics.  It would increase the opportunity to have a broader base of diverse constituents to strengthen the region across the entire metropolitan area.  A unified front will always be stronger than a crowd of kingdoms.  

    Perhaps this salary increase will foster intelligent, progressive young leadership that can temporarily put aside personal gain to rally for a regional government where they, along with their constituents, can reap the “profits & public benefits” of a well run government/business.

    Love my Birmingham.

  8. Tying council members’ pay to the well-being of the citizens they serve makes such sense you wonder why it isn’t the standard.  If the Council manages the city well, generates new jobs and improves the economy, and the median income of their constituents rises, why shouldn’t they get a raise based on that performance?  In business, we call that incentives, rewards, pay for results.  But giving yourself a 200% raise just because you can — without any measures of performance to justify it — is a cynical slap in the face of the citizens of Birmingham.  It may be that a $50,000 (or is it now $75,000?) salary will attract a more effective group of candidates for office, but we have yet to see where they will come from.  City/county consolidation is the only rational solution — simplify government, eliminate duplication, attract talent from a much wider pool, move the region together.  But who will initiate such a movement?  The City Council just removed any incentive they might have to bring about any conversation in the direction of “One Great Birmingham.”

  9. I’m with Phyllis McCoombe on this one. 

    I wasn’t adverse to the increase; I was adverse to the way it was done. Process counts, as good process (and education!) generates trust, trust that an elected leadership is doing its best to take the region in a direction that benefits its constituency. 

    Using the inflation calculator at http://www.usinflationcalculator.com/, converting $15,000 in 1995 dollars equals an equivalent purchasing power of $23,489.57 in 2015 dollars. 

    You can enter other years to show different starting points. 

    If this raise was to compensate for failures to increase during the years since the mayor and council form of government was adopted, well then say so! I’m all for correcting past historical wrongs and failures to make decisions. Hell – build an automatic increase tied to inflation to maintain purchasing parity, that’s now standard best money management practice. 

    DON”T try to slip an increase through without prior discussion or preparation of the community. That doesn’t generate trust in the leadership. Trust has a value above and beyond dollars. 

  10. *pay raises should coincide with term limits of council members as do not need anymore career politicians.  Public servants should serve and then return to being a citizen so do not become a part of a ruling class

  11. *David

    I read your comments still even though I have not lived there for five years … Normally I agree that some form of a metro governance is the answer but bad leadership, decisions made in the dark and attitudes of inflated self importance among elected leaders won’t somehow disappear because of a metro government, not that you were suggesting otherwise. I just wanted to underscore that point. Even if your argument that no pay increases since 1994 are valid, and I don’t know that I agree with that, adjustments for every year’s worth of a 3% cost of living raise is only 63% – a 233% increase is egregious and unjustified! The fact that these part-time positions require more than a part-time commitment should be addressed via legislation to recast the positions and redefine the scope of work and pay. Government IS not business and while a good business acumen would benefit leaders in their approach to solving complex problems, I can’t think of a good business leader who would come in and increase his or her pay by 233% without having to answer to stakeholders… Just as a public body should have to before it’s electorate. 

  12. *Hi David.  I want to share several thoughts:

    First, when I saw Councilor Austin’s photo, I thought that he had written a guest editorial, and I thought, “wow, how enlightened.” Then, of course, I saw that these were your thoughts to share with your readership. So disappointed that it wasn’t Councilor Austin who wanted to express his views. Oh well.

    Second, your views are thought provoking about running the City like a business and paying for top talent.  But, I am pretty sure that Miss Nina and George Seibels and Richard Arrington didn’t get into City government for the money.  And, for that matter, neither was Ben Erdridge a County Commissioner for the pay.  What ever happened to the notion of public service?  Don’t we still have many citizens on boards throughout the metropolitan area (including Birmingham) who serve on boards without any pay?  That’s a rhetorical question, because I know the answer is “yes” (though I acknowledge that there are too many City of Birmingham board positions filled by City employees). 

    And, of course, you are correct that the Birmingham City Council does not represent metropolitan Birmingham. 

    In my final analysis, I know that each Councilor’s role is to represent his district; but, that role should not be above what is in the best interest of the City.  The method of passage of this ordinance was a shanda [you can Google it] and didn’t well serve the people of Birmingham.  It will be very interesting to see if the citizens of Birmingham endorse this action by re-electing these councilors in 2017; or whether they reject this action by electing different councilors. 

  13. *David,   Well said.  Makes a lot of sense.  I would likely agree, it could have been handled differently and more openly.  And perhaps an incremental raise would have been more appropriate.  But there are always naysayers everywhere, and in Birmingham, the City Council and Mayor could provide utopia and the naysayers would still b–ch and find fault with it.  Another example, there have been cracks made about Bell traveling extensively.  You can well believe that if he sat at home all the time, they would gripe and complain about him doing nothing.  So there is no satisfying people like them.

       The Mayor and city officials often have to travel to promote the city.  A good example of that is in the Games coming in 2021.  I don’t see the local newsmedia covering much about that and it may be best that they don’t.  But someone, Mayor or otherwise had to travel to attract an event such as that.

       Anyway, well written and excellent ideas and thoughts.  Regards, Skip M.

  14. You keep standing by the belief that people should be paid more than the average citizen. But isn’t the motivation of being a city council member not to make more off the get go, but to have your pay increase with the increase of the prosperity of the people that you are elected to serve? We have one of the most inflated city budgets in the country. Look at the mayors finances. It costs the Birmingham taxpayer 42 dollars a year to pay for his staff, when in cities like Seattle and Washington DC it costs them closer to 8 or 9 dollars a year. Sure we’ve made some progress here in the city, but does the mayor need 50 assistants? Does he need that many bodyguards? The spending of the city on salaries should reflect that of the citizens. 

  15. “There’s not a single person reading this piece who would agree to work for a company that was paying the same salary as 20 years ago.

    That’s a statement that does not reflect difficulty of many working in the bar and restaurant industry. Fair Labor has not changed minimum wage for tipped workers since 1991. Many people work for $2.13 an hour.

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