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Mayor, council want pay raises

The last attempt by City Council members to boost their pay ended in a hailstorm of angry telephone calls, e-mails and letters.

Now that the uproar has subsided, the council will again broach the politically thorny subject. But if history is any guide, a pay hike may be a difficult sell.

"Here we go again," groaned council member Bill Foster.

At Thursday's meeting, Mayor Rick Baker will ask council members to consider an annual adjustment to the mayor's salary, which has remained fixed at $100,000 since 1993.

Under Baker's plan, the mayor would receive the same annual salary increase as city management staff and council members, which was 3 percent this year.

Baker also will request retirement benefits, which he does not currently receive.

"I think anyone who is working full-time expects to accrue retirement benefits," he said.

The pay proposal came from a study conducted by City Internal Services Director Andy Houston, who looked at the salaries and benefits paid to elected officials in comparable Florida cities.

The study showed that Baker makes less than the mayors of Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and Hialeah, each of which has a strong-mayor system of government similar to St. Petersburg's.

Tampa's mayor, for example, receives an annual salary of $135,012. Orlando's mayor makes $138,746.

Houston recommended boosting Baker's salary to $130,000. But the mayor rejected that proposal, citing the recent downturn in the economy.

"In light of all the budget difficulties we've been experiencing, I just don't think now is the time to address the issue," Baker said.

He is advocating the 3 percent increase, which would boost his pay to $103,000 this year.

Houston also studied the salaries of council and commission members in comparable cities and found that the St. Petersburg city council salary of $24,758 is less than most of the others.

Tampa council members receive $28,121 annually. Orlando commissioners gave themselves a 32 percent pay raise in September 2000 and now have an annual salary of $37,031.

Houston said in his report that it would be "justifiable" to raise council members' pay to $28,000 a year.

He also recommended council members be made eligible for retirement benefits.

Council chairman Earnest Williams said the increase is long overdue.

"I really believe that our people put in a lot of time and effort and we really need competitive salaries," he said.

Most council members work close to 40 hours a week, often at night or on weekends, Williams said. Three council members _ John Bryan, Virginia Littrell and Rene Flowers _ gave up full-time jobs after election.

"I think we need a system of payment where we can attract people who aren't just retired, own their own business or are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice," Williams said.

The council last proposed a hike in July 2001, when Flowers recommended increasing the car allowance from $150 to $400 a month. That would have amounted to a 19 percent raise. Council members also discussed giving themselves and the mayor a pension.

In the weeks that followed, more than 100 people flooded City Hall with letters, e-mails and calls, most of them critical. In response, the council voted down the idea.

Council member Foster said a salary hike is going to be even more unpalatable to the public now, given the economically troubled times.

"I was rather vocal and adamant against it last time, and I see no reason in today's economy why anyone would expect anything different from me this time," he said.

While council member Jay Lasita said he wanted more information before taking a position, he hoped his colleagues, and the public, would keep an open mind during the discussion.

"It's something worth talking about," he said. "We ought to be looking at the number of commitments each of us has."

_ Carrie Johnson can be reached at 892-2273 or cjohnsonsptimes.com.

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