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St. Louis County Council members could see salaries double under pay proposal

St. Louis County Council Chair Rita Heard Days, of the first district, Vice Chair Mark Harder, of the seventh district, and Councilwoman Shalonda Webb, of the fourth district, listen in to public commentary opposing a recent mask mandate on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, during a regular council meeting at the St. Louis County Government building in Clayton, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the county council listen to public comments during a hearing in 2021. Council members could be in for a substantial pay increase under a plan put forth by a compensation commission.

The St. Louis County Council is known for being combative, but most sides of the political fence agree that council members should be paid more.

That sentiment could become reality throughout the next decade if council members approve a new proposal doubling their salaries. But the move is not gaining universal support – even from people who concede the council is an outlier when it comes to salaries.

On Monday, a five-person compensation committee recommended raising council pay from $20,000 a year to $40,000. The council chairperson would be paid $50,000.

Compensation Committee Chairman Tim Fitch, a former councilman, noted that if the council approves the plan, current members would not see a pay boost unless they successfully run for reelection. That would mean that if all members of the council run again and are reelected, Kelli Dunaway, Shalonda Webb and Ernie Trakas would get the pay increase in January 2025 while Rita Days, Dennis Hancock, Lisa Clancy and Mark Harder would receive it in January 2027.

Fitch said that while he considers the job part time, council members haven’t had a salary increase since 2005.

“The job hasn't changed. The duties haven't changed. The number of hours, it's still part time, hasn't changed,” Fitch said. “It's really about inflation.”

Another member of the commission, Sandi Colquitt, who initially suggested that council members should receive $46,000 a year before agreeing to $40,000, said the council is paid significantly less than other governmental entities. Jackson County legislators make around $41,000 a year, with a $5,000 allowance for vehicles. St. Louis aldermen recently saw their salaries go up to $72,000 a year. And Boone County commissioners make more $100,000 a year, even though St. Louis County Council members represent districts that are larger in population.

In recent years, council members have experienced marathon meetings and committee hearings and had to make major decisions on pandemic-related matters. They’re also subjected to sometimes harsh and personal criticism during the council’s public forum section.

‘Way too high’

David Stokes of the Show-Me Institute, which describes itself as a “free market” public policy think tank, said the proposed increase is too much. He served as a county council aide the last time there was a pay increase for council members in 2005.

While Stokes agrees that $20,000 a year is too low, he said the plan that the compensation commission approved is “way too high.” He added that most county council districts are full of incorporated cities, besides the ones that Trakas and Webb represent. And that means many service-related issues are not under the county council’s responsibilities.

He added that it’s not fair to compare the St. Louis County Council to the Boone County Commission, since its members also have executive responsibilities. And he said St. Louis aldermen also are responsible for more tangible duties.

“This is crazy, in my opinion,” Stokes said. “And I think the pandemic brought county government into people's lives, for the first time, for a lot of people. Because dealing with the pandemic was a county issue, much more than like a Ladue issue or a Florissant issue or Green Park issue.

“And that certainly increased the workload of council members — I'm not ignorant to that or trying to ignore it,” he added. “But I don't think that's going to continue forever.”

While compensation commission member Rene Artman ended up voting for the pay plan, she questioned whether boosting salaries was a good idea when the county is not in good financial shape.

“That’s a big increase. And I don’t think at this time we can afford it,” Artman said.

Fitch said that while some of the arguments against the increase are valid, if the pay hike goes into effect, it will mark the first of its kind in 22 years.

He also noted that if the county council approves the increase, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page can’t veto it. Last year on Politically Speaking, Page said council members should get a raise.

“They haven’t had a raise in a long time,” Page said. “It’s politically difficult to increase salaries for elected officials. The bottom line is the underlying salary needs to change, and there’s just not an easy mechanism to do it.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.