Voters denied a raise for Fort Worth City Council members Saturday, once again signaling a hesitancy to enshrine higher council pay in the city’s charter.
The raise was recommended in 2015 by the city’s charter review task force. Voters defeated the recommended pay hike in 2016, despite other controversial measures passing. The measure this year met similar resistance, failing with 52.40%of the vote. Council members will continue to receive $25,000 while the mayor will earn $29,000 annually.
Being a council member has become a full-time job, the task force argued, and a higher rate of pay would attract a more diverse pool of candidates. Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa led the task force.
Fort Worth has a council-manager form of government, meaning the elected officials provide general oversight, hire and fire the city manager and set the government. Traditionally, these have been part-time positions, but proponents of the raises say this isn’t the case in a large city.
“In part it was a recognition of the hours associated with their elected positions,” Costa said. “They held many committee meetings and did a lot of research, and I think their findings were sound.”
Bill Eakins, 76, cast his vote on Election Day at Summerglen Library Branch in favor of the raise.
“I think City Council should be paid,” Eakins said. “The proposal, I thought, was reasonable. They put their time and energy into this. They deserve to get paid for their work.”
During work sessions, council members weighed how much other cities pay their elected officials. They also discussed methods for determining, and passing, council pay. The comparisons were mostly limited to similarly sized cities in Texas. In 2015, the task force expanded its search to similar cities outside of the state.
After failing to pass a pay raise for the second time, Fort Worth may look to other cities for insight into alternative methods for managing a pay hike. Fort Worth’s council chose the route of going to the voters to request the raise.
Voters have to approve any council pay change in the form of a charter amendment. But voters also could pass a method for increasing council pay that isn’t simply an updated dollar amount.
James Brooks, director of infrastructure and solutions with the National League of Cities, said city governments should look first to a foundational American document — the U.S. Constitution.
The constitution requires Congress to determine its own pay. In 1789, the states ratified an amendment requiring Congress to hold an election before any approved pay increase goes into effect. This effectively gives voters the opportunity to vote out any representative they don’t think deserves a raise.
“That particular balance seems to be logical,” Brooks said.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, where raises don’t require voter approval, the City Council raised its pay by including the increase in its yearly budget for fiscal year 2022. The pay hikes were recommended by a citizen advisory committee on governance for reasons that echoed Fort Worth’s justifications; serving on the City Council is not within reach of residents who are not independently wealthy.
The move was controversial, local news outlets reported, in part because the raise went into effect before another municipal election could be held.
In Kansas City, Missouri, the council approved a pay raise. The city changed its ordinance in 2019 to remove voter approval for council raises. That led to the first salary change in nearly a decade. Again, council members referenced the full-time commitment being on a city council requires.
The 15% raise passed 8-4. The raise also went into effect before another municipal election could be held.
But other cities reacted to raises in the same way as Fort Worth voters. In Oklahoma City, a proposed raise didn’t make it to the voters in 2019. Instead, some council members proposed a new committee to study possible charter amendments.
Many large cities around the country have a mayor-council form of government. In these cities the mayor and council members have more responsibilities and authority than in a council-manager form of government.
Columbus, Ohio, and Denver have a strong mayor-council form of government, but pay raises also require a charter amendment there.
Columbus appoints committees to consider raises based on salaries in similar cities and the scope of work done by elected officials. Denver ties a potential raise to the cost of living or staff pay.
These methods are less common, but often take the politics out of determining pay for elected officials, Brooks said.
“An independent commission does seem to be a trend that cities are relying on for a variety of things, to let big decisions be in the hands of experts who look at research,” Brooks said. “But that has not been embraced by every community, and I think it’s still an (emerging) trend.”
Other city salaries:
Here are the wages for three major Texas cities with council-manager forms of government similar to Fort Worth:
- Austin’s mayor earns $97,656 and council members $83,258.
- Dallas’ mayor earns $80,000 and council members $60,000.
- San Antonio’s mayor earns $61,725 and council members $45,722.
Denver has a strong mayor and council, with combined authority over both the city and county. Voters approved a charter amendment in 2003 to formalize a process to give council members a raise.
The charter requires the City Council to set its new pay every four years via ordinance. The increase cannot exceed the lesser of two measures — the percentage change in the cost of living for consumers in the Denver area or the percentage change of the average salary of employees.
The most recent increase took effect in 2019. Debate among council members was centered around whether the increase was truly needed. In 2019, council member’s salary was $91,915. Compared to other full-time councils across the country — they were in the middle of the pack.
After the pay raise, the salaries of elected officials will gradually increase yearly, going into full effect in 2023.
“I remember a time when this was a lot more contentious and the voters gave us an autopilot option for raising salaries,” Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn said at a meeting discussing the raise.
It’s important to remain in touch with the wages of their constituents, opponents of the raise said in a public meeting. Low public service wages often serve as a barrier to diverse candidates, supporters of the raise countered, an argument similar to those made by Fort Worth council members when they voted to include the raise on the May ballot.
“To assume we haven’t walked in the shoes of our constituents because of the salaries we hold today is an inappropriate assumption,” Robin Kniech, who serves as one of the city’s at-large representatives, said. “Our lives are longer than the years of our service, and I disagree that our salaries today determine if we can or cannot empathize with our constituents.”
Four council members voted against the raise.
Brook said it’s known whether consistent raises increase council diversity, but Denver does tend to reflect the demographics of the city.
After the most recent election, and with the adjusted pay rate now in place, five out of 11 representatives on Denver City Council, including the mayor, are Black or Hispanic. The level of representation for Hispanic residents, who make up about 30% of the city’s total population, is nearly proportional. Black residents, who make up nearly 10% of the city’s population, are over-represented.
Voters in Columbus, Ohio, also have a strong mayor form of government. The voters approved a new method for updating council pay in 2014. The vote updated the city charter to require the council to appoint an independent commission to review the salaries of elected officials every four years. Mesa, Arizona, which has a council-manager form of government, has a similar system.
The Columbus commission will convene 10 times in 2022. It’s tasked with gathering data about other cities and providing a recommended pay increase to the council, which has the final say to approve or deny the raise. The approved salary cannot exceed the amount recommended by the commission.
The purpose of the commission is outlined in the city’s charter: “The review shall be made to recommend salaries appropriate to the duties and responsibilities of each elective officer of the city.”
The commission conducted a survey of 24 similarly -sized cities, with both strong and weak mayors, including Fort Worth. Only 16 cities responded to the survey. It found that mayors across the 16 respondents earn a median income of $144,395 while council members earn a median income of $56,573.
The Columbus commission also will analyze the pay rates of similar civil service positions, like the city manager and city attorney, and changes in the annual cost of living. Members of the commission developed a formula to determine how the cost of living has increased over time which is then compounded into the salaries every year.
All of these methods are used to take the process out of council members’ hands to make assigning a raise less political, commission member Fred Ransier told the Columbus Dispatch.
Council pay increased by 20% the last time the commission met in 2018. If the council approves the commission’s final recommendation, it won’t go into effect until 2026 under Ohio Ethics Commission guidelines.
While the council could elect to give themselves a lesser raise than recommended by the commission, or no raise at all, they’re unlikely to do so.
“Realistically, I would be very surprised if they decided legislatively to take less than we recommend,” Ransier told the Dispatch.
The Columbus City Council will add two new council members in 2023, raising the total number from eight to 10; four of the sitting council members ar Black or Hispanic. Black residents, who make up nearly 30% of the city’s population, have proportional representation on the council. Hispanic residents, who make up 6% of the city, are also proportionally represented.
Both of these methods have two characteristics in common: They do not require a vote of the public to approve or deny the raise, and the raise doesn’t go into effect until after voters have an opportunity to vote the currently elected council members and mayor out of office. Instead, the intention is to create a routine opportunity to adjust the pay of elected officials without a vote of the people.
Appropriate pay is a question vexing city governments around the county, Brooks said.
“The circumstances that you find there in Fort Worth are not uncommon,” he said. “Strangely enough, this has been an issue on which we have weighed in on more times than anything else over the last six to eight months.”
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.