Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to put raises for the mayor and city council members on the May 7 ballot. Proposition F amends the city charter to increase the mayor’s salary to $99,653 annually and council members to $76,727 annually.
Language of charter amendment
Shall Section 3 of Chapter III of the Fort Worth City Charter be amended to provide that the mayor’s annual pay shall be half of the average annual base-rate salary for all City department heads and that the other city council members’ annual pay shall be half of the average annual base-rate salary for all City assistant department heads starting October 1, 2022?
Also at the meeting, the council unanimously approved the ballot measures for the city bond election. The bond would infuse $560 million into everything from road improvements to land acquisition. The bond gives nearly $370 million to street and mobility projects.
The bond grew by $60 million since it was first proposed in May. The budget for street and infrastructure improvements grew by 15% adding nearly $50 million to the budget. The bulk of money for infrastructure improvements will go to designing and building new arterials. Council members urged voters to get involved in the bond process at public input meetings.
The charter amendment asking to increase elected officials’ pay passed with opposition from two speakers who spoke against the charter amendment. Speakers said council members don’t deserve a raise in part because they are new to the office and pay raises should be tied to performance.
District 9 councilmember Elizabeth Beck said voting in favor of putting a pay raise on the ballot eight months after being elected isn’t politically expedient, but important to creating a path to diverse representation.
The final language is the result of a months-long process to construct a proposed ballot amendment. The council said they wanted simple language, but stopped short of providing an amendment that presents a specific amount to the voters, because similar language failed to pass in 2016.
In a January 18 work session, the council threw out a charter amendment that would have allowed city council members to set their own salaries.
The council quickly decided to use language that based council members’ and mayors’ salary increases on the average pay of city employees, but struggled to decide which category of employee to tie their salaries to.
District 4 councilman Cary Moon, who is looking to exit the council with a run for Texas House District 93, was glad the issue is being put to voters. He is skeptical that despite the dollar amount not being listed in the ballot measure, that will be the top question on voters’ minds in the ballot box.
“And if it’s higher than $60,000, it’s not going to pass,” Moon said.
Other council members, including Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, disagreed.
“We may all fall on our faces,” Parker said. “But it’s important to me to be able to pass the torch to somebody and say, ‘If you’re a single mom and you want to be mayor, it won’t be easy, but you can raise a family on what you’re making.’”
The last time voters approved a raise for council members was in 2006, when pay was increased from $3,900 annually to the current annual salary of $25,000 for council members and $29,000 for the mayor.
Voters rejected a raise that would more than double council members’ and the mayor’s pay in 2016. Now, council members will ask voters to more than triple it.
In a Feb. 1 work session, the council decided on language that ties the mayor’s salary to city department heads and council members’ salary to assistant department heads. Based on this language, the mayor’s and councils’ salaries would more than triple. The charter amendment would also allow the council members compensation to rise as department head’s wages go up over time.
Right now council members are making an average of $14.5 an hour, assuming they are working full-time year round. That is well below a living wage for a single parent in Tarrant County. The updated city council compensation would increase the council’s hourly wage to $36.89, just above the living wage for a single parent of two.
“We are in a public service position and it shouldn’t guarantee a high level of play,” District 2 councilman Carlos Flores said at the Feb. 1 meeting. “But there is room to move compensation closer to the level of work and dedication that we all put into this job.”
Odds of passage
“Trying to articulate this to voters is going to be important,” Parker said.
Council members chose to include wage increases in the May election in part because it would allow them to educate voters about the wage increase alongside the bond that is also on the ballot in May. The city plans to conduct voter outreach from February to May.
Former council members said they know firsthand how difficult it is to pass wage increases for elected officials, who are meant to serve as a way to give back to the community. Former District 2 councilmember Sal Espino said the council has to strike a balance between fair compensation and a number the voters will accept.
“I don’t know what that number is,” Espino said. “In 2016 they said no to $45,000 for the council and $60,000 for the mayor, so what has changed in six years? That’s my concern.”
Fort Worth has a council-manager form of government. Hired employees of the city manage the day-to-day operations under the city manager, who is hired and fired by the council. If a member of the public comes to a city council meeting, they will see their elected officials voting on policies, but it’s city staff that sets the budget and supplies all the other materials council members are elected to vote on.
Espino thinks the council should have allowed more time to explain the wage increase to voters because the average voter doesn’t see firsthand the demands of the job.
“You can’t be a council member part time,” he said. “If you’re not spending 40 plus hours on it as a council member, you’re not really doing your job.”
Former District 8 councilmember Kelly Allen Gray said combining a pay raise with term limits might make the amendment more palatable to voters. A majority of council members rejected that idea in January. She believes a pay increase is needed, but the rush to get the amendment on the ballot doesn’t allow time for voters to be properly informed.
“If you want to be transparent, I wouldn’t put it on the May ballot,” Gray said. “That’s forcing it down people’s throats.”
Ahead of the May election, council members acknowledged it will be their responsibility to explain to voters why they feel this pay hike is necessary. District 8 councilmember Chris Nettles said his office doors are open for anyone who wants to discuss the proposal. Beck invited people to look at her calendar to prove being a member of city council is more than a full-time job.
“I’m a young fella, I’m not going to die on this seat and I’m not going to let you kill me,” Nettles said. “I want the next person who sits in this seat to sit here comfortably and represent you each and every day.”
Disclosure: Sal Espino is a member of the Fort Worth Report Reader Advisory Council. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.