There is never an opportune moment for elected public servants to try to triple their salaries. In Dade City, Commissioner Eunice Penix couldn't have picked a worse time — six weeks into an austere fiscal year that required staff to fill a $168,000 budget hole and a debate over eliminating police dispatchers.
This week, on a 3-2 vote, Penix, Commissioner Jim Shive and Mayor Camille Hernandez instructed the city attorney to draft an ordinance raising the commissioners' pay. The new salary, if approved, will be $300 monthly. Commissioners currently earn $100 a month and the mayor gets $150. (Hernandez said she donates her salary back to the community.)
There is no argument that Dade City's elected leaders are poorly compensated. A single council member in neighboring Zephyrhills is paid $6,000 annually, nearly as much as the combined annual remuneration of $6,600 for all five members of the Dade City Commission. Commissioners also have cut their travel and per diem budgets by more than half over the past six years.
But Penix' idea is an unbudgeted expense equating to $12,000 over the course of a full fiscal year. If approved, the unanticipated spending will come after the city heard, but declined, belt-tightening proposals from Hernandez to eliminate eight part-time police dispatchers and to charge fees to downtown event organizers to help cover related city expenses.
Instead, the city balanced its spending plan by leaving a police officer's position vacant and budgeting less for building maintenance, the youth council and contingencies. Penix would have served the public better if she had considered her own compensation simultaneously with other budget discussions.
This is new territory for the commission. Previously, elected officials' wages were set by referendum, but voters amended the City Charter in 2008 to give that authority to commissioners. And, to their credit, commissioners will vote formally on the proposed raise after a public hearing — scrutiny that some other elected officials in Pasco County government skip because their compensation is set in Tallahassee under a formula tied to population growth.
But, to fully vet the ordinance, commissioners should consider the effective date, not just the amount of the increase. They should consider beginning the higher salary on Oct. 1, 2013, at the start of the next fiscal year. Or, commissioners could tie the wage hike to the start of the commission terms following the April 2014 election.
Either is more appropriate than tripling your pay less than two months after holding the line on personnel costs for everybody else.