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At Our Service: Springfield City Council is unpaid – but should it be?

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Imagine the mayors of Missouri’s three largest cities getting together for lunch.

If the menu is determined by the executives’ salaries, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas sits down to a medium-rare wagyu steak, seared to perfection. And there’s St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, settling in before a plank-grilled bluefin tuna.

When Springfield Mayor Ken McClure shows up, he’s toting a brown bag with grapes and peanut butter crackers.

Compensation for mayors and city council members vary widely from one municipality to another. The 12 part-time members of Kansas City’s council make $70,718, along with a monthly automobile allowance, following a 15% percent raise that council approved in July 2019. Mayor Lucas earns $141,455, according to TV station KSHB-TV.

In the city of St. Louis, according to its website, the governing body consists of aldermen representing 14 wards plus a presiding alderman. The mayor is the city’s chief executive and has veto power.

The St. Louis aldermen make $72,000 per year, doubled from $37,500 this past February when the board was halved in size after redistricting. The aldermen are required to work an average of 32 hours a week, and they also receive a $5,000-per-year expense allowance. Mayor Jones earns $131,820, according to TV station KSDK.

At a similar theoretical luncheon with their peers, Springfield City Council’s nine members would have to look on hungrily via Zoom. They earn $0 per year. Mayor McClure makes a stipend of $200 per month.

The process to establish pay for council would require council to pass a measure to amend the city charter, and the city’s voters must approve all such changes, according to Councilmember Brandon Jenson, who is a city planner with the Southwest Missouri Council of Governments.

The National League of Cities notes council members spend an average of 20 hours per week on council-related matters in small cities and an average of 42 hours per week in large ones. NLC notes three-quarters of council members in cities with populations over 200,000 and up receive salaries of $20,000 or more, and just 7% of council members from medium-sized cities of 70,000-200,000 are compensated at $20,000 or higher.

McClure said it’s time to talk about council pay, and as an official now serving his last term as mayor, he may be just the person to introduce the idea.

Should council be paid?
Council and mayoral pay varies widely across the country, with municipalities establishing their own policies.

Locally, inequities may make a difference in who can run for and hold office.

Jeremy Dean ran for Springfield’s General Seat C in the April municipal election, losing to Callie Carroll. Dean, 25, is an office coordinator for a CoxHealth OB-GYN clinic, and he said he ran with the blessing of his supervisor. Still, the election wasn’t easy, and serving wouldn’t have been, either.

“It was definitely a struggle,” he said. “My boss worked really well with me to adjust my schedule to allow me to make it to certain events, but oftentimes I had to pick events or miss work.”

Dean noted many committee meetings happen during the daytime when people are working, and this is also true for the full council’s Tuesday luncheon meetings. This is an important consideration in Springfield in particular, according to Dean, because many of the city’s residents are working class or poor.

“Springfield’s unique in the sense that we’re a large city, but we’re still considered the poorest in the state of Missouri,” he said.

Dean was referring to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s data, which showed median household earnings in 2021 of $39,991 per year, well below the state’s median household income of $61,043.

“We’ve talked a lot about trying to get individuals’ opinions, but yeah, that’s a huge conflict,” he said. “Those people are likely working 40 hours a week Monday through Friday or weekends, and who knows what they’re coming home to.”

Dean said if he had been elected, council nonpayment is something he would have sought to change, if only to broaden the view of a council that is made up of people in advanced professional positions or retirees.

“It’s possible in the future we could bring in individuals that have other positions,” he said. “We lose out whenever we only allow people that have had those experiences.”

He added that U.S. Census data show the largest demographic in the city falls between the ages of 20 and 29 – early career participants who may not have the flexibility to give to a volunteer council seat.

Former Mayor Robert Stephens, who served the city 2009-17 on council and then as mayor, said he is not in favor of paying council members.

Sticking points for Stephens, who was a human resources professional before his retirement, are determining fair payment for council work and figuring out how to evaluate the position.

“From a private-sector perspective, probably $90,000 would be pretty close,” he said. “The question becomes nine times $90,000 – where do you take that money away from? Street repairs, airport? Those are the kinds of questions you have to ask.”

If the mayor and each member of council earned $90,000, that would add an $810,000 personnel expense to the city’s estimated $496 million budget.

Alternately, the city could raise taxes to pay council, but Stephens considers that a long shot.

“At what point do you want somebody where $18,000 a year is a pay increase to run your city with a multimillion-dollar budget? I’ve got a little bit of a problem with that,” he said. “Someone in an entry-level position, I don’t know that they’ve got the experience to run a city the size of Springfield.”

Current members weigh in
McClure said it is time to have a discussion about mayor and council pay.

“The issues with which council is dealing are increasing, both in number and terms of complexity,” he said. “We’re asking council to do an awful lot.”

McClure said he is probably best suited to weigh in on the issue, since he is in his final term on council.

“It would have been almost impossible for me to be mayor while I was still working,” he said. “Clearly, it has an impact on who can serve. You have to weigh your personal livelihood, your family situation – each one’s different.”

He said the time he puts in each week can vary from 20 hours a week to full time or more.

“I get up early every morning just to do the reading,” he said.

As of April, Jenson is serving as the Zone 3 representative. He said the idea of paying council members is not a matter to be considered lightly.

“While anyone can work hard, time and flexibility are assets that most households do not have in excess,” he said. “Few jobs allow flexibility around hours of recurring and special daytime and evening meetings, nor could most households handle the loss, even partially, of a working adult’s income.”

Those conditions offer a significant limitation on who is able to hold office, he said.

“The honor of serving on this body should be a realistic opportunity for anyone who is willing to put in the hard work, but I do not believe that is what our current model allows,” he said.

Jenson noted council and voter action could change this.

“I believe Springfield has the right team of elected officials, appointed officials and staff to make that vision of responsibility, fairness and transparency a reality,” he said.

Zone 2 Councilmember Abe McGull, an attorney who owns his own law practice, The McGull Law Firm LLC, said he believes elected officials should be compensated for their time. He noted paying elected officials creates healthy competition for public office.

“I would imagine many others would seek public service if they could be compensated for their time,” he said, adding he has run twice for public office without an opponent, perhaps because no one wants to work for free.

“We spend anywhere from 15-20 hours a week on council business, and even that amount of time is not sufficient to address all the needs of the office,” he said. “Soon, you will not get the caliber of leadership the third-largest city in Missouri should have.”

Springfield has a council-manager form of government. According to Ballotpedia, that’s structured with a professional city manager who oversees the drafting of the city’s budget and implements council’s policy and legislative initiatives.

The International City/County Manager Association reports the council-manager form of government is common in cities between 10,000 and 500,000 residents, and 59% of U.S. cities operate on this system.

Hired in 2018, Springfield City Manager Jason Gage’s salary was $246,313 last year. By comparison, Kansas City’s city manager, Brian Platt, earns $265,000 per year, according to TV station KCTV5, and is provided with a car.

Gage said council has not discussed compensation, and council pay is not an aspect of his role, which is to manage staff and day-to-day operations.

The current council includes the retired mayor, plus four business owners, three executives and one quasi-governmental professional. There are no hourly wage earners in the mix.

City code specifies that council members may be reimbursed for expenses incurred while fulfilling their duties, but reimbursement may not exceed $2,400 per year. The code does not specify how much time a member must commit to council work.

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