Columbia City Council votes big pay raise for next mayor

cleblanc@thestate.comOctober 1, 2013 

— Columbia’s first strong mayor would make $160,000 but face the prospect of a pay cut should he or she take a second job, City Council decided tentatively Tuesday night during its official return to a fancy, new council chamber.

Further, whichever mayoral candidate is elected Nov. 5 would get the first raise in nearly a quarter of a century to $75,000 no matter what voters decide on changing the capital city’s form of government.

The pay hikes would take effect on July 1, 2014, council decided in a 5-0 initial vote. A second and final vote is likely at council’s Oct. 15 meeting – and by then council will learn the full cost of a strong mayor’s compensation after a benefits package is ironed out.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and mayoral challenger Councilman Moe Baddourah have excused themselves each time council has taken up the salary debate. They left the $798,000 refurbished chambers during the hour-long debate.

Voting for the increases were mayor pro tem Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, who made the motion to adopt the pay scales, Councilmen Sam Davis, Cameron Runyan and Councilwomen Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh.

After council adjourned for the night, Benjamin said he did not know what council had decided on the salary question. Baddourah did not return to the meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes after the pay raise vote.

Columbia’s mayor makes $17,500. That pay has not changed since former mayor Bob Coble’s first of five terms. Coble refused pay increases, said Devine, who pushed for a raise regardless of the outcome of the Dec. 3 strong-mayor referendum.

Newman said he came up with the $160,000 figure by first deciding that a strong mayor should not make more than the $190,000 salary council pays city manager Teresa Wilson. Then, Newman said, he evaluated the pay of Columbia’s assistant city managers and that of other strong mayors.

Council discussed but did not vote on whether a strong mayor also should get a car and an expense account. That is to be decided by the final vote.

Another personnel expense the city could face if voters adopt a strong mayor is the prospect of paying Wilson her annual salary as severance based on her contract when council hired Wilson in January. A strong mayor would assume the duties of the city manager.

The jobs of the city’s three assistant city managers also are not guaranteed in a strong-mayor form of government, city attorney Ken Gaines told council.

Council voted Tuesday under Gaines’s advice. He said if a salary decision was not made before the Nov. 5 election, state law would postpone an effective date until 2016. Councils are banned from voting their sitting members a pay increase. Council may make the decision to grant raises, but the law delays the effective date until after the next election cycle. For Columbia, that would mean waiting until a council is seated after the November 2015 election.

If council did not change the current salary before the city’s fall election, “The mayor would be stuck with the salary of $17,500,” Gaines said.

Gaines also told council that nothing in state law prohibits council from cutting the mayor’s pay.

The $160,000 figure is $3,000 less than Charleston’s long-time mayor, Joe Riley, receives. But Riley does not oversee the port city’s water system. Columbia’s first strong mayor would run day-to-day operation of the water and sewer systems.

City personnel director, Pam Benjamin, who is not related to the mayor, gave council examples of the pay that five strong mayors receive, including in Atlanta and Richmond, Va. Pam Benjamin told council the average pay in the sample cities is $155,226 while the median pay is $148,905. The other cities in her sample are in South Carolina: Charleston, North Charleston and Goose Creek.

Devine said it’s difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons on mayoral salaries because of the sizes of cities, whether their mayors oversee utilities and the powers of mayors under different systems.

“It appears to me,” Davis said, “that we just have to come up with a number that we’re all comfortable with.”

Runyan raised the issue of amending the pay decision to allow council to cut a strong mayor’s pay if he or she should take a second job. State law does not bar a strong mayor from holding jobs outside of mayoral duties.

In another election related decision Tuesday, council voted during a work session to spend $121,033 to open all 72 city precincts for the strong-mayor referendum.

The sum is on top of about $191,000 the Richland County elections office estimates it will cost the city for the Nov. 5 City Council elections.

Council has balked at the Nov. 5 price tag and has yet to vote to accept it.

Council members knew when they voted Sept. 11 to put the strong-mayor question before voters in December that it would cost the city additional money. Advocates for a strong mayor argued the referendum should have been on the same Nov. 5 ballot as council’s elections.

Opponents of a strong-mayor system said, however, the November election could turn into a referendum on Benjamin rather than the larger question of the city’s form of government.

Council, pushed by a successful citizens petition, voted to separate the two decisions.

Council also learned Tuesday that three developers have said they are willing to pay full price to buy and re-use the Palmetto Compress warehouse. The city bought the property to about $5.7 million and has agreed to invest up to a total of $7 million to prepare it for resale.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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