IT'S IRRESPONSIBLE for Swansea's elected leaders to give themselves raises even as the town struggles to pay a $500,000 debt to the state.
The pay hikes include an outrageous $8,000 raise for the mayor and much smaller - but equally ill-timed - $400 bumps for council members. Considering such poor stewardship, it's no surprise the town is in the predicament it is with the state.
The town needs every dollar it can muster to pay the six-figure bill it owes the state. The debt is a result of the failure to forward the state its share of fines from traffic tickets the town collected for 2004-07. There are consequences for not paying the bill; the state treasurer is withholding state aid until the town begins paying off the debt.
Town officials have discussed raising taxes and fees to pay off the debt, but have been made little progress. In addition to coming up with a way to pay the state, the town also must repay a $3 million loan for a waterline.
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The last thing town leaders should be doing is lining their own pockets. The raises were approved on a 3-2 vote, with the mayor and members Linda Butler and Woodrow Davis, who were unopposed in the recent election and retained their seats, voting in favor.
Mayor Ray Spires saw his part-time pay increase from $10,000 to $18,200 - nearly an 80 percent jump. Council members' pay rose from $600 to $1,000 annually. Mr. Spires has justified his raise by saying he serves as the town's "de facto administrator."
Mr. Spires' two opponents for mayor not only questioned the pay increases during the election but also raised concerns about the debt, saying the mayor was largely responsible. Mr. Spires blamed the debt on bad advice from former officials who spent the money on salaries and unspecified bills.
We don't know enough to say the debt is Mr. Spires' fault. But it's the job of the mayor and the council to ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and that the town's affairs are in order. Their willingness to dip into town coffers for their own gain at such a time as this is inexcusable.
It appears the ill-timed, cavalier decision is only a symptom of larger problems in the town. In response, the two newest members of the council quit out of sheer frustration, saying there's little chance of positive change in the town. Councilmen Barrett Black and Petey Bailey submitted identical letters of resignation after the council's Nov. 9 meeting, at which the mayor and council members received the raises.
Since taking office about two years ago, Mr. Black had raised serious questions about the town's spending, including the decision to grant the raises. Mr. Black said he had tired of coming up on the losing end of continued 3-2 votes.
A special election for the two years remaining on the two departing council members' terms likely will be held on Feb. 2. Considering the sad state of affairs in Swansea, we can only hope some worthwhile candidates offer themselves for those seats. Swansea needs stable, accountable leadership.
Of course, there's no guarantee voters will make the right choice. Just consider the most recent election.