It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for the Rock Hill City Council to vote itself a pay raise.
After an initial vote Monday, council members are set to nearly double their salaries next year. Council members currently are paid $8,000 in salary and are given $1,800 annually for expenses related to serving in office.
Mayor Doug Echols is paid a salary of $12,542 and is given $3,600 a year for expenses.
Under the change, council salaries would rise to $16,348, effective Jan. 14, with no set amount for expenses. Echols would make $25,667, with no specific expense allowance.
Both Echols and members of the council would be able to submit claims for expenses such as travel and food costs but reimbursements would not be taxable income.
This was the first time the council has approved a pay raise for itself since 1988.
It was an excellent time to do so if the aim was to avoid immediate political repercussions from voters. With no incumbents in contested races in upcoming city elections, members won’t pay a political price at the polls for giving themselves a raise.
On the other hand, critics still are likely to argue that avoiding voter scrutiny is the worst reason to rush through a pay raise, and that it’s a sign of political cowardice. This might be an issue during the next election.
While we recognize the need for accountability on the part of elected officials, we sympathize with the council’s move. Voting one’s self a pay raise – even when it is justified – is never easy. Witness the fact that the council hasn’t done so in a quarter of a century.
Even after doubling their pay, council members would have a hard time making a living on that amount alone. It is more of a gratuity than a salary.
Council members spend hours each month reading materials related to meetings. They must attend regular meetings, work sessions, special events and various other functions – not to mention running for office. That deserves reasonable compensation.
The higher amount for the mayor is justified, we think. Echols attends far more meetings and events, including out-of-town functions, than council members and, in effect, serves as the city’s primary ambassador.
We don’t think elected officials should reward themselves with exorbitant salaries. But many constituents have become so cynical about government that they complain about any pay raise at all, no matter how small or infrequent it might be.
It is easy to invoke the hardships of the downtrodden when criticizing elected officials for voting themselves a raise: “How can they accept a raise when so many people are out of work and down on their luck?”
But one of the functions of providing elected officials with a stipend is to help ensure that non-wealthy people can run for office. The money received by council members might not be a living wage but it might be enough to convince a low-income candidate to throw his or her hat in the ring.
While this might be an opportune time for council members to vote themselves a raise because their seats aren’t on the line this year, the fact is there never is a good time for officeholders to vote themselves a raise. Voters will always bellow about it.
Maybe a better solution would be automatic cost-of-living increases every few years. Instead of having to vote themselves pay raises, council members would have the option of voting not to accept the latest increase.
For now, though, we think a raise for the first time in 25 years is warranted.