New York should pay our city council members much higher salaries
With a tiny budget reallocation we could hire the absolute best and brightest New Yorkers to write our city's laws. This would strengthen democracy and lead to better policy.
City councilors have important and challenging jobs
The 51 members of New York’s city council have a huge impact on New Yorkers’ lives. They are responsible for setting the laws and policies that impact the prosperity, health, safety, education, housing, recreation, and futures of every New Yorker. Along with the mayor, they decide how to collect and spend the city’s $106 billion budget – which is larger than the budgets of 46 US states.The city council controls what types of buildings can be constructed in which areas, which is one of the main factors that makes housing expensive in New York.
The skills, integrity, and work ethic of city council members have a big impact on the quality of our city’s laws and policies. An effective city council would be able to create the conditions in which all New Yorkers can thrive by assessing issues earnestly, learning from other places, and negotiating compromises. An ineffective city council can tinker around the edges of major topics, blow a lot of hot air, and finish their terms without much of an impact. A misguided city council can plunge the city into decline and ruin by pursuing harmful policies and pandering to parochial interests.
As my friend Daniel Golliher notes in a recent post, “members of the government are people with jobs, just like you”. City council members are no exception, and their job looks pretty hard. After several months of unpaid campaigning, successfully elected council members each represent 170,000 residents for a term of four years. They navigate a complicated system to propose, negotiate, and enact laws. They are expected to attend community events in their district and help their constituents with all sorts of issues in their district. Council members are limited to a total of two consecutive terms, after which term limits require they stand down. For doing this job, city council members are paid a salary of $148,500 per year and they are forbidden from doing income-generating side hustles.
New Yorkers deserve better governance
If you assess our city council based on the lives of New Yorkers, there is clearly a lot of room for improvement. I love this city, but I also see rents that have increased 14.2% in real terms since 2010, piles of garbage, and 129 pedestrians and cyclists dying on our streets each year.City agencies regularly break the law and city council members struggle to hold their leaders accountable.
Some city council members are ridiculously unproductive: there are six council members who have introduced zero bills that reached a committee hearing in the current 2022 to 2023 session. The chair of the council’s transportation committee recently admitted in an interview that she didn’t know Staten Island has a train system and there is no mention of transport on her campaign website.A council member in Harlem opposed the construction of a housing project with 458 “affordable” apartments, arguing that the property should contain more low-cost units. Instead the developer built a truck depot – with zero apartments.
Thanks for reading Sidewalk Chorus! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Thinking like an employer
When you break it down, New Yorkers are ultimately the employers of our city council members. Just like we hire the Department of Sanitation to take away our trash, we hire our city council to provide us with governance services. As employers, it is entirely our choice and responsibility to decide collectively what caliber of legislators to employ and what compensation to pay.
Since 2016 we’ve paid city council members salaries of $148,500. I think the current state of our city and the very small set of candidates who have put themselves forward for this year’s city council elections shows that we’re not paying enough. We should pay our city council members a lot more.
Money talks. Raising city council members’ salaries would increase the incentive for more highly skilled, charismatic, experienced, and hard-working New Yorkers to run for office and apply themselves to improving our city. Paying more would signal unambiguously that New Yorkers view government service as prestigious and worthwhile. It’s no secret that skilled New Yorkers have a lot of high paying job opportunities in the private sector. For New York’s high-flying management consultants, financiers, lawyers, and techies, paying more would make public service feasible without jeopardizing mortgage payments and private school fees.
New York can afford higher salaries for elected officials
New York is fortunate that our city is large and wealthy. Increasing salaries for city council members would be a small drop in the bucket of the city’s finances. Increasing the salaries of each city council member to $1 million would increase the city’s budget by just 0.041% – or $4.93 per New Yorker per year if the cost were spread evenly.Of course, $1 million is just a big round number. We could pay each city council member $500,000 for just $2.03 per New Yorker per year. Doubling council members’ salaries to $300,000 would cost just $0.87 per New Yorker per year.
The point is that our city could easily afford to hire the best and brightest New Yorkers to write our laws and set our policies – we just have to choose to prioritize it. I acknowledge that our city’s resources are finite and there are many worthy causes for spending taxpayer money. For the cost of increasing every city council member’s salary to $500,000, we could instead hire 104 more police officers or 208 more teachers.However, I think that improving the quality of our city council is an extremely high leverage point for spending, given city council members’ huge amount of influence over the quality of New Yorkers’ lives.
The Quadrennial Commission
Determining the salaries for city council members is a politically dicey topic. As our legislators, city council members have the power to determine their own salaries by amending the city charter. Any amendment, however, would likely face knee-jerk criticism of being greedy and self-interested.
To mitigate these risks, city law requires that every four years the mayor appoint a compensation review commission. This commission of three “private citizens generally recognized for their knowledge and experience in management and compensation matters” is supposed to review the compensation levels of all city elected officials and make recommendations about whether their salaries should be changed.
The most recent review happened in 2015. The commission produced a surprisingly interesting report that outlines the shape of the city government, presents data comparing New York’s elected officials’ compensation to the compensation of elected officials elsewhere, government employees, and private corporate executives. It’s genuinely well worth reading.
The report also opines on the sense that there should be a “ceiling” on compensation for elected officials:
Despite the great difficulty of the job, no one believes a mayor, or any other elected official, should be paid at anywhere near the same rate as private sector leaders. Nor should their pay be escalated so much in percentage terms. There is a sort of ceiling on government pay. Why is this?
There always has been a powerful, visceral feeling that government officials should not be paid too much. Indeed, in 1787, in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin argued that the president and other federal elected officials should be paid nothing because paying them would combine “ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money.” And to make “posts of honor places of profit” would “sow the seeds of contention, faction and tumult.” Finally, Franklin argued that “the pleasure of doing good and serving their country, and the respect such conduct entitles them to, are sufficient motives to give up a great portion of their time to the public without the mean inducement of pecuniary satisfaction.”
Franklin’s comments reflected a different world. Most elected officials were very wealthy, and most states limited the vote to white men with property. Even in that environment, however, Franklin’s motion received no support. From the outset, America’s elected officials were paid. Certainly in today’s democracy, with a much wider franchise and with many elected officials of modest means, no responsible person would argue that elected officials should be expected to donate their time––although a few who are enormously wealthy have done so. Nonetheless, there always has been, and still is, a powerful sense that there should be a ceiling on government pay.
The sense that there should be some ceiling on the pay of elected officials does reflect Franklin’s insight that it is a privilege and an honor to be elected to serve the public. Another restraining factor on government pay is that elected officials are paid with public money. Also, deeply embedded in the sense that there is some ceiling is a belief that the pay of elected officials should not depart too far from the pay of their constituents or of those who work at lower levels in the government. This long-standing belief, present from America’s founding, also echoes a very contemporary American issue: concern about and distaste for growing income inequality.
I disagree with this assessment that there is or should be a low ceiling on government employees’ compensation. The city government already has 35,101 employees who in 2022 earned more than city council members.These range from highway repairers and police sergeants to community college chancellors and investment advisors. We are short-changing ourselves and our democracy if we are willing to pay market-rates for some positions, but artificially impose salary ceilings on the individuals who are supposed to oversee the whole system.
In any case, observant readers will have noticed I mentioned that the most recent report of the Quadrennial Commission was published in 2015. It appears that Mayor deBlasio failed to appoint a commission to review compensation in January 2020, which is a violation of the law. Although 2020 was a turbulent year, remember that New York’s first confirmed COVID case was on February 29th, so Bloomberg can’t even blame the pandemic for this. Mayor Adams too has failed to appoint a compensation review commission during his time in office.
All of this means that our elected officials salaries remain set at the levels determined by the 2015 report. Since then inflation has eaten away at the purchasing power of elected officials’ salaries, which are now worth 22% less in real terms than in 2015.
As I said before, I personally favor significantly increasing the salaries of our city council members. At a minimum, however, I think the mayor should follow the law and appoint a commission to review elected officials’ salaries and propose appropriate inflation adjustments. If the mayor won’t act, then the city council should rewrite the law and appoint their own commissioners for this purpose. Each day we delay is another day of underpaying our legislators and undermining the city’s opportunity to thrive.
Make your voice heard
If you think your city council member should be paid more, you can send them an email telling them that you value the work of the city council and you want a commission to review New York’s elected officials’ salaries. Find their email address here, then click this button for a first draft of an email you can customize and send:
I have sent requests for comment to the Office of the Mayor, the City Council, and the Public Advocate, but I haven’t received any response.
Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, Financial Plan Summary (archive as of 2023-06-02)