Neglecting NYC elected officials’ pay: a threat to democracy
New York’s mechanism for setting the salaries of elected officials is broken
Last year I wrote about how New York’s elections for city council are incredibly uncompetitive – to the point where in 2023 most New Yorkers had effectively no choice in who represents them. In two-thirds of districts the incumbent faced no primary election challenger, and in the general election only two districts had less than a 20 percentage point gap between the winner and the runner-up.
My theory is that we’re under-paying New York’s elected officials, which leads to few people running for office, and even fewer people attempting to challenge incumbents. The result is a hollow election, 7% voter turnout, and erosion of trust in our city’s democracy.
The good news is that New York actually has a process for periodically adjusting our elected officials’ salaries. The bad news is that this process is badly broken.
The law requires that every four years, New York’s mayor must appoint a commission of experts to study the compensation levels of the city’s elected officials and then recommend what changes (if any) should be made. Unfortunately, twice in a row – in January 2020 and earlier this month, in January 2024 – the mayor has simply neglected to appoint this commission. Without creating this commission, the status quo prevails, and our elected officials are stuck on salaries that were most recently increased back in 2016.
I’ve seen no reporting on this topic, so earlier this week I sent a letter to all 51 city council members, asking them to take action to make sure this compensation review actually happens. I reminded these council members that their salaries have fallen 20% in inflation-adjusted terms since 2016, and that they have the power to fix this. My letter is reprinted below.
Dear Council Member,
I’m writing to ask you and your city council colleagues to conduct a review of the salaries of New York City’s elected officials.
The salaries we pay to New York’s mayor, city council members, borough presidents, and other municipal elected officials were most recently increased in 2016. These pay rises were the result of a detailed review and public hearing process by a commission appointed by Mayor de Blasio.
Since 2016, inflation has eaten away at the purchasing power of elected officials’ salaries. In effect, because of inflation, city council members and our other elected officials have had a 20% pay cut since 2016. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, your $148,500 city council salary in 2024 is only worth 80% as much as it was in 2016.
You and your fellow elected officials do important and complicated work, and I think that work should be well-compensated. What’s more, ensuring that we have competitive elections with high-caliber candidates requires that New Yorkers pay their elected officials well. I personally believe you should be paid much higher salaries — $500,000 or even $1 million — but at a bare minimum your pay should at least keep up with inflation.
That’s why it’s essential that the mayor appoint a new commission to review elected officials’ compensation. Section § 3-601 of the admin code requires that Mayor Adams appoint a commission by January 15th, 2024. Former Mayor de Blasio failed to do so in 2020, and I worry that Mayor Adams has also neglected to appoint a commission this year.
I’m asking you to pressure the mayor to appoint a compensation commission, as the law requires. If he fails to act, then please work with your fellow city council members to appoint a commission yourselves to propose how our elected officials’ salaries should be adjusted. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the City Council to write the legislation that sets elected officials’ salaries.
Your work is important. We shouldn’t sit idly by and allow inflation to eat away at your salary and degrade our democracy.
Sebastian Hallum Clarke
Subscribe to Sidewalk Chorus for free articles about how New York works and opportunities to make this city even greater
We’ll now just have to wait and see whether our mayor and city council are willing to act – or whether they’ll sit back and allow the real value of their salaries to keep dropping.
If you too are concerned by how the declining salaries of our elected officials is harming the competitiveness of our elects, consider writing a quick note to your council member, urging them to act to ensure a review is conducted promptly.
Politicians’ salaries are always tricky. Elected officials are hesitant to appear self-interested, especially when news about the city’s squeezed budget is in the headlines. However, politicians are ultimately regular people who have bills to pay. If we allow inflation to eat away at the purchasing power of elected officials’ salaries, then eventually their compensation will be so meager that only zealots or people who are already wealthy will run for office.
The Quadrennial Commission was designed to work around this political gridlock by inviting an external set of “experts” to study the situation and opine on what politicians’ salaries should be. However, Section § 3-601’s fatal flaw is that it still requires the mayor to appoint the commission in the first place. My guess is that both Mayor Adams and Mayor de Blasio calculated that the negative knee-jerk reaction that might arise from appointing a compensation commission isn’t worth it for their own political careers.
We could improve this system by adding a fallback mechanism: if the mayor fails to appoint a compensation review commission by a certain date, then elected officials’ salaries should automatically be adjusted to keep up with inflation (or other economic statistics, like NYC median household income).
Of course, elected officials’ salaries are only one piece of the puzzle of good government. Making sure that municipal agencies’ job vacancies are promptly filled and that legislative staff are well-paid also matters. But the law is the law, and it’s now time for the mayor to do his part and appoint a commission to make sure our elected officials are paid properly, and our democracy remains safe.