As Princeton residents head to the polls to vote in primaries for upcoming elections for state, county and local representation, a debate has broken out over a recent decision by the Princeton Council to allow increased funds for payment of council members. Council members, who were on track to get an annual ‘salary’ of $7,500, will now get $10,000. The Council President (currently Bernie Miller) will get $12,500, and the mayor has the prospect of a raise from $15,000 per year to $17,500 per year. Total payments for the mayor and Council would be $79,750.
Not everyone is happy, with the Princeton Packet editorializing against the salary increase, arguing that the council members always knew how low their salary would be, that a raise is unfair when private sector employees are facing salary stagnation, and that a raise risks undermining the town’s position in contract negotiations with labor unions. Online comments have also been fairly negative. This raises an interesting question: how much is the right amount to pay our elected officials?
One suggestion is that Council members are not employed but ‘serve’ the town. As such, they shouldn’t have any expectation of a salary, but should carry out municipal business out of a sense of civic responsibility. A counter-argument is that if something is worth doing, it’s worth paying for, and other people who ‘serve’ generally draw a living wage for doing so. Another way of thinking about Council salaries is as a ‘stipend for expenses’, where the relatively small payment is intended to cover transport to meetings, arrangements for child care etc. This seems reasonable, but it overlooks the significant number of people who serve on Princeton municipal committees (see a list here) who are paid exactly nothing.
Many committees in Princeton only exist because people step forward to offer their services in a voluntary capacity. One example is the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which “promotes and accommodates walking and bicycling as modes of transportation”. Many of us would love to see Princeton criss-crossed with an extensive network of upgraded bicycle and walking trails, but the people who are charged with the incredibly laborious process of designing, funding, and ensuring statutory compliance of such improvements are paid nothing and work in their spare time. Yesterday we also observed that plans for an off-leash dog park in Princeton don’t exist, although the issue has ‘come up’ several times in the past. There is a very long list of things that people would like to see happening in Princeton, but how many people are really prepared to give up their free time to attend long committee meetings to make change happen? Would a small salary prompt people to spend less time watching ‘Game of Thrones’, walking the dog, or whatever, and more time helping out with local committees?
Council members Heather Howard and Bernie Miller have suggested that a higher salary for people elected to Princeton Council would encourage greater participation and diversity in municipal politics. The current situation makes it impossible for somebody to be a ‘full-time’ council member in Princeton. Full-time workers at Walmart make more than Princeton Council members, even after the proposed salary increase. By contrast, the President of our School board recently resigned rather than work for $165,000, more than double what the entire Council gets.
On primary day, there is bi-partisan opposition to Council pay raises among candidates on the ballot. Jenny Crumiller and Patrick Simon, the Democratic nominees, and Fausta Rodriguez-Wertz, the Republican nominee, have all stated their opposition to paying Council members more. For these candidates, the possibility of increasing participation is irrelevant– but notably none of them were challenged for nomination! All four Council Members who are not facing the voters this year supported the increase. Interestingly, although Jenny Crumiller said that being on Council is “basically a volunteer job”, nobody has suggested putting Council members on equal terms with the people who serve on other municipal committees– and paying them nothing at all!
What do you think Princeton elected officials and committee appointees should be paid?Do we ‘only get what we pay for’ with volunteer positions? Or does offering salaries to people to serve on committees attract the wrong sort of candidate? Should Council members get a salary increase? Feel free to leave a comment below!