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Opinion: When should council members go on city payrolls?

Eyes & Ears

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To pay or not to pay, that is the question before Springfield City Council members, the mayor and city residents.

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure, at least, has broached the subject of compensation for the city’s elected council members. As noted in Springfield Business Journal’s May 29 story, “At Our Service” by reporter Karen Craigo, the city’s governing body receives no pay – apart from a $2,400 annual stipend for the mayor’s responsibilities. The nine serving members are civic volunteers. And, no doubt, they’re making key decisions for the current and future well-being of our city – in economic, social and cultural ways. It’s an important position.

So, should they be paid? That’s the question Craigo chased for her story, and I encourage you to read it.

I view this matter of compensating elected officials as one of several examples of growing pains for a city the size of Springfield. At roughly 170,000 residents, the city is on the brink of moving from medium-size status to a large city. According to the National League of Cities, that statistical bump is 200,000 residents. NLC categorizes small cities as 25,000-70,000 residents, medium cities as 70,000-200,000 residents, and large cities as 200,000 and greater.

It’s only natural, then, to be having this conversation in Springfield. This is healthy movement for our city.

To begin to answer these types of questions, I tend to compare how peer cities (in size and scope) handle such matters and see what we can adopt from them – or not. In considering the compensation for elected officials, good questions to ask: How many hours are spent per week on council matters? And what are the city’s full expectations/requirements to meet in these civic roles?

In the broad categorizations by the NLC, we learn council members in small and midsize cities spend 20-25 hours on council matters – equivocally part-time jobs. In the large cities, it jumps to 42 hours per week, according to a handy and thorough summary at Compensation reflects the work of those members accordingly: Salaries of $20,000 or more are issued at only 2% of small cities, 7% of midsize and 75% of large cities.

So, I poked around U.S. Census Bureau data and isolated, based on population, the next two cities larger than Springfield and the next two smaller. My research found all four of them paid their council members/commissioners. Two of them – Garden Grove and Rancho Cucamonga, California – paid under $20,000 and two – Oceanside, California, and Pembroke Pines, Florida – paid over $20,000.

Based on these trends, Springfield should expect to begin issuing pay to these members as our city approaches that large city status.

Should we infer $20,000 is a baseline pay? I inquired with NLC if the organization had more stats on councilmember pay among its members, and a representative said it did not.

That $20,000 figure has me rethinking the matter. Initially, I considered Springfield’s size too small to warrant pay for council members. But I also was thinking of full-time scale pay.

To me, it comes back to the hours currently spent on council matters and the city’s explicit expectations. If wages came into play, the city surely would need to put those requirements in writing – which currently do not exist in the city code, according to Craigo’s report – and add checks and balances to monitor as much as possible.

Also in Craigo’s story, one council member said they spent 15-20 hours a week on city business, while the mayor said his time commitment ranged from 20 hours to over 40 per week. Based on Springfield’s current structure, the $20,000 annual wage seems reasonable, with the mayor earning maybe twice as much to cover his time, regular appearances and travel. Curious what that would equate per hour of service time? My math says $22 for the average 17.5 weekly hours at the assumed baseline pay for members, and potentially double that for the mayor. Could be considered a bargain for those acting as a voice for constituents and making widespread, impactful decisions.

The majority of SBJ readers aren’t in favor of paying City Council members: 58% said no in the poll, with 510 votes May 24-31.

Of course, as former Springfield Mayor Robert Stephens rightly pointed out in the recent SBJ article, if adding salaries, the next question to solve becomes: Where would the money come from?

Springfield Business Journal Editorial Vice President Eric Olson can be reached at


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