For the first time since 1977, Covington City Council members and the mayor will get pay raises, as members say their workload has greatly increased and the economy is improving.
Beginning Jan. 1, council members’ salaries will increase from $6,000 to $9,000, while the mayor’s salary will increase from $12,000 to $18,000. Covington’s elected official positions are part time.
A raise for the city’s elected officials has been a periodic topic of discussion the past few years, but the council — generally in a split vote — has decided not to give itself a pay raise — until last year.
Changing Covington’s elected officials’ pay requires the city’s charter to be amended. The council unanimously approved the first reading of making a charter change April 2, 2012, and approved the final reading May 7, 2012.
The pay rate was among several changes made to the charter in an effort to bring it up to date. The pay change was never reported on and does not appear to have been discussed publicly as a separate item, according to meeting minutes and video recordings.
Ronnie Cowan, the city’s of director of administrative services, proposed raises in February 2009, saying the council’s workload had doubled in just the past few years and was significantly larger and more complicated than in 1977.
The council voted against the raises in 2009 and later that year reached a consensus not to discuss the issue again in 2009.
The Georgia Department of Community Affairs does annual salary and wage surveys for city and county positions, including elected officials. The 2012 survey listed 44 cities in a similar population range to Covington, and 41 of those cities paid members an annual salary (two cities paid per meeting, not on an annual basis, while Buford didn’t pay its members) ranging from $25 in Kingsland (population of 15,913) to $29,970 for College Park (population of 14,360).
The average salary for council members in 2012 was $7,367.75. The median salary was $6,000.
The range is great, even among smaller cities, many of which pay more than $6,000 per council member as well. However, three much larger cities, Dalton, Duluth and Peachtree City, only pay $6,000 to their council members.
Covington had a 2012 population of 13,226, according to the state survey.
Of 40 cities that pay a mayor an annual salary, the average in 2012 was $11,052.98, ranging from $50 for Kingsland (the next closest city was $3,000) to $34,676 for College Park. The median salary was $10,602.
Not all elected officials responded to requests for comment on the raises, but council members Janet Goodman, Ocie Franklin, Chris Smith and Hawnethia Williams all said they felt the raises were justified and that the time was right.
"No time will ever be right in the minds of people we represent. People who understand the challenges know that we are overworked and underpaid. Others will complain regardless of how much we make. Some don’t care about us at all, just what we can do for them. Informed people are a better people," Goodman wrote in letter responding to questions from The News.
Goodman said she put in about 29 hours in April, while Smith estimated he spends at least 40 hours a month on council duties.
Williams said she couldn’t estimate, but said she has spent a lot of hours attending training around the state, going to local events and talking to constituents at all times. The monthly salary for the council currently is $500.
"This is a full-time job, if you let it (be)," Goodman wrote. "There is always something to do and somewhere to go if you take advantage of it.
"If I have gotten naïve at all, I don’t remember it. We do not make minimum wage when it all adds up. So, we aren’t in it for the money."
"The county (representatives) have made much more than us for many years…We work hard for the money. Complaints are always the order of the day. ‘Thank you’ is not something we heard on a regular basis. We serve and we deserve to be respected and supported in the Covington community."
Smith said he voted for the charter changes, including the pay raise, because the charter hadn’t been changed since the late 1970s.
Previously, when the issue came up, including in the summer of 2011, Smith said the economy was still at its bottom and he didn’t support a raise at the time.
However, the council later formed a committee to review the charter and recommend changes, and the results of that committee’s work led to unanimous support for the revised charter.
"We implemented those changes all at one time. It was unanimous. All those meetings were privy to the public," Smith said.
Smith and Williams both said people call them at all times, including late at night for various issues.
"The community changes, the responsibilities and obligations of what a council person needs to do run the gamut of many more things than they had to do in the ’70s," Williams said.
"I’m out in (the) community, answering the phone, traveling all over the state and taking (training) courses. Even when I serve on the GMA (Georgia Municipal Association) board, I’m still working for the city because I’m representing the city of Covington."
Several other changes were made to the charter, including clarifying the power, roles and responsibilities of the mayor, council members and city manager.
The charter also clarified the structure and operation of the city’s municipal court.