Higher salaries

Higher salaries

The pay of public officials is a difficult issue to balance.

Monday night's salary debate by Urbana City Council members demonstrates once again how conflicted — and conflicting — discussions can be over salaries paid to our public officials.

If school board members receive zero compensation for what they regard as a service performed on behalf of their communities, how much, if anything, should mayors, council members and county board members be paid?

The numbers are all over the place, reflecting differing senses of propriety and entitlement by elected officials.

Under the new plan, Urbana's mayor will be paid nearly $65,000 a year starting in 2017. Is that amount unreasonable for the highest elected official for a city that is no longer operating with a top administrative officer?

How about $6,500 a year for members of the city council, who can put in as much work as they wish. Some devote many hours to the job while others are considerably less conscientious.

In Champaign, which has a council-city manager form of government, the mayor is paid $35,000 a year. Council members get $5,000.

Champaign County government is more frugal. The board chairwoman collects an annual salary of $29,274 while board members receive $60 per diem payments for attending three meetings a month.

These sums are in contrast to the higher salaries that are paid for professional staffers, who bring highly specific and marketable skills to their posts.

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing advocated larger increases on the grounds that salaries of elected officials are "all generally considerably below staff compensation." But is there really a link between run-of-the-mill elected officials, who need no particular qualifications to seek office, and full-time employees hired strictly on the basis of merit?

It may not often be the case in central Illinois, but there's no doubt that many elected officials in Illinois view public office as a place to line their pockets.

For example, state legislators have for decades argued that generous compensation is necessary because:

— Serving in the House or Senate is a full-time job that requires full-time pay along with generous benefits, including a substantial pension.

— Good people won't run for legislative office unless they are well-paid.

But while some legislators have no other source of income, others, particularly those in the Chicago area, have a second job that provides another public pension.

A recent News-Gazette editorial mentioned that Democratic state comptroller candidate Susana Mendoza had a job with the city of Chicago while she served in the Illinois House. That's why her Republican opponent, incumbent Comptroller Leslie Munger, has charged Mendoza was a "double-dipper," one person with two full-time public jobs.

But a Mendoza spokeswoman called to challenge that claim, asserting that her candidate was not a double-dipper because serving in the Legislature is a "part-time job."

People see things the way they wish, and they usually take the position that puts money in their pocket.

Hence, elected officials' salaries, at least in Champaign and Urbana, have crept up to levels that were unimaginable years ago. Chances are good they will continue to increase.

The more they go up, the more people will be attracted to run because of the pay and perks that come with these mostly part-time posts.

If only more of them had the dedication of the average school board member.

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