by Bill McEwen
Here we are again debating the salaries of Fresno City Councilmembers.
The last time we visited the subject, circa 2006, the council boosted its pay to $5,416 a month or about $65,000 a year.
Some residents protested. More than a few pointed to our southern neighbor Bakersfield. Down in oil country, being on the council is considered public service and the people elected to office still receive only $100 a month.
The question this time is whether Fresno City Council pay should be boosted to $80,000 a year.
That proposal is in the ballpark but a tad high.
I say our council representatives should receive $78,900.
Keeping Pace With Inflation
How did I arrive at this figure?
I took the $5,416 a month from 2006 and put it into a cost-of-living calculator. To catch up with inflation, our council representatives should receive $78,900 annually.
Not a penny less or a penny more.
This is a simple calculation. One that avoids the big question of whether significantly boosting the salaries of elected officials will result in better governance and attract more highly qualified candidates.
The question has been asked many times and answered many times by political scientists and economists.
And there is one country, Singapore, that pays its prime minister like he’s a CEO. Lee Hsien Loong makes $1.7 million a year. That’s more than four times what U.S. taxpayers pay President Donald Trump.
Wrote Kevin Hartnett in a 2015 article for Politico: “In Singapore, the salaries are seen as an anti-corruption measure, and also a way to attract the kind of brains that otherwise end up in finance or consulting.”
Back in 2006 when I checked what the experts said about the salaries of politicians, I concluded there was no link between salaries and performance.
I also suspected that it might be quite the opposite. Substantially raise the salaries of local councilmembers and county supervisors and you would actually encourage more incompetent people to run. That’s because you would attract candidates who had no hope of making a nice salary in the private sector.
But research of political campaigns in Brazil has shown that higher pay increases the quality and size of the candidate pool. Research into civil service hirings in Mexico indicated that the better the pay, the better the applicants.
Bad Idea to Low-Ball Politicians and Teachers
Stephen J. Dubner, who cited the Brazilian and Mexican research for a 2012 post on the Freakonomics blog, concluded:
“I am not willing to argue that paying U.S. government officials more would necessarily improve our political system. But, just as it seems a bad idea to pay a schoolteacher less than a commensurately talented person can make in other fields, it is probably a bad idea to expect that enough good politicians and civil servants will fill those jobs even though they can make a lot more money doing something else.”
I admit that $78,900 sounds like a lot for a Fresno councilman or councilwoman.
But here’s some number-crunching from my GV Wire colleague Drew Phelps. Right now, city council salaries are costing Fresno’s 522,000 residents 87 cents per capita annually. The mayor’s $138,000 yearly salary works out to 26 cents per capita.
What’s a few cents more a year?
Those pennies might prove lucky and give us more good candidates to choose from in the future.