ANYTIME elected officials seek to raise their pay it’s imperative that they do so openly and allow taxpayers, who are picking up the tab, sufficient time to digest the proposed increases and provide input.
That’s not what Cayce City Council did when it recently boosted its salary significantly, or what the Lexington-Richland 5 and Richland 1 school boards did when they raised their pay last year. All three have rightly been criticized for the low-key process used to adopt the increases as well as for the amount by which they raised their pay.
We don’t have a particular problem with public bodies making reasonable adjustments to their salaries, as long as they follow the law, debate the matter openly and allow sufficient public input. While serving on these boards is voluntary, we understand that it takes away time from families and puts stress on full-time jobs; indeed, many elected officials work far more than the term “part-time” suggests.
But some decisions made by locally elected bodies in the Midlands and across the state over the past year are grating in that they stretch the definition of what’s reasonable and, in some cases, were eased through quietly, with the obvious intent to draw as little public scrutiny as possible.
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Take, for example what happened in Cayce, Lexington-Richland 5 and Richland 1.
Cayce City Council tripled the salaries of council members and the mayor, elevating themselves to a position among the highest-paid part-time elected officials in the state. The council’s annual pay rose from $4,500 to $15,000, while the mayor’s increased to $18,000 from $5,500. In Lexington-Richland 5, school board members more than doubled their annual salary, from $3,750 to $9,600 — making them among the highest-paid in the state. Richland District 1’s board also got into the act, raising its salary from $6,750 to $9,600, a 42 percent increase. In each case, citizens were understandably outraged by the size of the increases and by the fact that officials gave practically no advance notice.
Midlands officials aren’t the only ones to vote themselves significant increases: Recently, Clemson City Council doubled its pay, from $3,000 to $6,000, and nearly doubled that of the mayor, from $5,500 to $10,000. Charleston County Council is working on what would be a double-digit pay raise; the chairman’s salary would rise from $17,347 to $26,142, while council members’ pay would increase from $14,352 to $20,738.
The officials offered various reasons for seeking raises, such as their salaries hadn’t been adjusted in 15, 20 or more years or that the amount of work they do has grown or that their pay was out of line with other like public bodies.
We’ve often noted that how elected officials conduct the public’s business is as important as what they do. When an already-distrustful public is blindsided by a pay increase for elected officials, citizens become suspicious. Why the secrecy?
While it might not be comfortable to openly engage the public on this issue, it’s unacceptable for elected officials to seek raises without the full knowledge of their employers — taxpayers.