The Covington City Council and Mayor Kim Carter will consider whether to raise the salary level of their elected positions at the city’s next council meeting this month.
The decision to reconsider the salary level of their positions comes after a Friday work session on the matter in which the council and mayor were told by City Personnel Director Ronnie Cowan that their positions had not received a salary increase since 1977.
Cowan urged the mayor and council to consider raising their salary levels in light of the increasing amount of work that comes with their positions. He suggested increasing the salary of the mayor to $18,000 and that of city council members to $9,000.
The current salary of mayor is $12,000 and the current salary of a council member is $6,000. The proposed salary increases would add $24,000 to the city’s annual budget.
"There’s more demand on this body than there ever has been," Cowan said adding that the mayor and council are handling double the amount of work today than just a few years ago.
According to a 2008 salary survey provided by Cowan of Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia member cities, Covington is neither at the high end or at the low end in terms of elected officials salary pay for cities of comparable size offering a comparable number of services.
Cowan noted that the decisions the council is required to make affect much more than just the city’s 14,712 residents but also all county residents living in the eastern half of the county that the city provides gas services to including residents living as far away as Newborn and Mansfield.
"A lot of people look at elected officials as serving just the city of Covington," said City Manager Steve Horton who spoke in favor of the salary raise. "You might not be the political representatives [of county residents] but in fact you are the utility representatives."
Cowan compared the level of work the council is expected to do with that of the Newton County Board of Commissioners. He noted that while both governmental bodies make public safety and public works decisions, the BOC does not make any utility decisions. But the base salary of county commissioners is much larger than that of the city council at $15,649.
A change in the salary of mayor and council will require a change to the city’s charter. Cowan said he brought forward the salary issue now because city ordinance requires the issue to be addressed before qualification begins at the end of August for the 2009 municipal elections.
If the council decides to approve the pay raise, it will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2010.
"It’s never popular to vote yourself a raise," Carter said, adding that she would support what ever decision the council makes. "Unfortunately the law forces us to do that."
Though Covington is presently in good financial standing with $20 million in cash reserves, if the economic recession continues for much longer, there is no guarantee that the city wouldn’t soon find itself in the same position as the county.
Whereas Newton County ended fiscal year 2007 with a 25 percent budget fund balance, the county is now looking at a $5.3 million budget deficit by September.
The city council is still dealing with the after affects of a public firestorm over the decision to redecorate the elected officials’ office in City Hall. Though a small budgetary item, the issue became a focal point for some residents who perceived the decision to redecorate the office as wasteful in these economic times.
Councilmember Keith Dalton came out strongly against raising elected officials’ salaries, saying, "I can’t vote and give myself a raise."
Council members Mike Whatley, Hawnethia Williams and Janet Goodman said the council needed to look at raising the salary levels.
"You’re going to have some folks that want to crucify us anyway," Whatley said, adding that there would be other residents who won’t believe the council waited 30 years to pass a salary increase.
Whatley said if the city’s financial standing takes a sudden turn for the worse then the council could always vote to undo the proposed salary increase before it could take affect in January.
"It’s like a doctor on call. People call you every day, it doesn’t matter what time," Goodman said of the responsibilities that come with being a councilmember.
Cowan urged the council to not look at it as giving themselves a raise but as setting an appropriate salary level for the elected officials that will come after them.
"You’re not setting it for yourself, you’re setting it for the policy board. You’re really doing it for the city. It’s been over 30 years since they’ve even been considered," Cowan said, adding. "Ya’ll are the policymakers of the city. You are entitled to fair compensation for your services."
He added, "I think the evidence shows that the council has done a good job. We’re operating with about 13 [job] vacancies. You asked your staff to pick up the slack and they have, without too much overtime."