The Palm Coast City Council voted 4-1 today to approve the largest net raise for council members and the mayor in the city’s history.
Council members’ salary will rise from $9,600 a year to $24,097, a 151 percent increase. The mayor’s salary will go up from $11,400 a year to $30,039 a year, a 164 percent increase. The new salaries go in effect in November, after the election.
The approved figures are substantially less than those Mayor David Alfin proposed last month. He had proposed a raise to $44,670 for council members and $46,470 for the mayor, or 365 percent for council members and 307 percent for the mayor. Those figures provoked near-universal and staunch public criticism, leading Alfin himself to open the door at a workshop last week to scaling back the proposal–which may have been his strategy all along, starting high and ending up perhaps not where he started, but significantly higher anyway.,
The raise will not be as substantial, but the cost to taxpayers will still be closer to that of the original raise Alfin proposed, adding close to $175,000 a year in costs, because part two of the approved raise is the addition of health benefits to the council members’ compensation package. If a council member already has health coverage, as most have to date, he or she could get the benefits’ cash equivalent. That had not been part of Alfin’s initial proposal, though the “opt-out” from benefits, the city attorney said, would amount to $750 a year.
The new ordinance also calls for council members and the mayor annually to get raises equal to the raises staffers will be getting–a mathematically questionable approach that leaves out a key difference between council members and staffers: for staff, raises are awarded to specific individuals. Once that individual leaves the position, the salary for the position itself may revert back to a lower pay, according to the next hire’s experience. The council raises will be awarded to the position, eliminating individual experience. Thus, the raises will be perpetual, accruing from council member to council member.
Assuming a 2.5 percent annual raise, in 10 years council members will be making $29,374, and in 20 years, they’ll be at $39,500, continuing to compound from that new annual baseline year after year.
The revised figures were put forth by John Fanelli, newly appointed to the council to fill the seat vacated by Victor Barbosa. Fanelli showed his ability to make a mark quickly, pragmatically and without a hint of playing the rookie in his new position. Fanelli also extended Alfin a lifeline out of the tangle the mayor had created for himself by pitching the raise proposal clumsily, out of the blue, without preparing the public or doing so at a workshop, where the matter could be hashed out. He did so instead at the end of a night meeting, to an empty chamber, with no evidence.
Fanelli said he looked at the salaries of council members and mayors in 16 cities with populations averaging 102,000. He took out any city with a strong mayor form of government, so the remaining cities would be comparable to Palm Coast’s government. And he took out Palm Coast. He then averaged out the salaries for council mayors and the mayor, and came up with the figures he proposed as the baseline for Palm Coast’s new salaries.
Fanelli also called for the health benefits and the cumulative annual cost of living raises to be part of the new ordinance. Fanelli said the approximate cost of benefits is $6,000 to $8,000 a year.
Oddly, none of the council members bargained the new numbers: either they knew of Fanelli’s proposal in advance or they immediately found it more politically palatable than the one they’d supported previously. In fact, the comparative numbers, had appeared in a chart in background material attached to Alfin’s proposal at a previous meeting. Fanelli himself had not conducted that original research, and it’s not yet clear who had conducted it (the city has not responded to a request regarding that detail):
Council members reiterated the positions they’d taken in previous weeks, Eddie Branquinho still adamantly opposing the raise, saying it’s not the time. He also objected to the revised numbers’ addition of benefits. Council member Nick Klufas–who had previously favored a more gradual increase in pay–spoke most adamantly in defense of the higher pay, making a direct link–still never documented by Klufas or any member of the council–between better pay and a higher quality of candidates, or candidates from different walks of life.
“People who have a family, who have a wife and kids, the benefits could be more beneficial than not,” Klufas said. “Retirees do not necessarily have the same necessities that someone in a working class can have, but they still represent a large cross-section of our community, so I think it’s important that we’re inclusive and offer the opportunity for everyone to participate in local government, and not just individuals, which I’m fortunate to be one of, who have enough time and flexibility in their lives to be able to participate.”
Alfin spoke along similar lines. “Should a resident’s ability and availability to serve as a city council member be dependent on their financial wealth? That’s the question I put out,” Alfin said, crediting fellow-council members alluding to the same question. “Do we restrict our candidates from running for office and serving the community because we are tying it to their financial wealth and ability to serve without a adequate or actually a limited compensation.”
The Fanelli numbers did not seem to sway most of the many people who, again, spoke in opposition to the raise.
“I have the utmost respect for my mayor. I’ll take a bullet for my mayor,” Robert McDonald said. But mayor, this ain’t gonna work now. It ain’t gonna work.”
“The fact that you all are sitting there proves that people are willing to work for $9,600 a year,” Michael Martin, a resident conducting a petition drive to change the charter’s provision on council salaries, told the council. “The fact that we’ve had a city council since the city was incorporated proves that people are willing to work for the current salary, because there was no salary originally.” (There was no salary originally only because the charter left it up to the founding council to set one in accordance with the charter’s allowance to that effect.)
“Ms. Bevan sits there and runs the city day to day. She makes those decisions,” Martin said of Denise Bevan, the city manager. “None of you put in the hours that she does. The reason that salary is set the way it is because we have a weak mayor, weak council” type of government.
Alan Peterson, who served on the council at the time when it passed its last raise, disputed Alfin’s claim that council members’ duties have changed since, or that the nature of the budget has changed, even though its size has. “I think that you will have a very extremely detrimental reaction in the future of people willing to serve and willing to provide their time and their expenses to serve this city if they think that you as a council are more interested in money for yourselves, than they are for community service that you that you’re not providing to the residents,” Peterson said. He favored a raise closer to $12,000 to $15,000 a year.
“The biggest drawback to getting certain working class people who work full time during the day is the fact that the meeting is held in the morning,” Petersen said. “If you held meetings at night, you might get more representatives.” The many more comments over the next 40 minutes followed the same path.