Before the coronavirus uprooted normalcy and everyday life, I had the honor of covering both City Council and the Pennsylvania General Assembly for a subscription service. It was a thrill to work with legislators in both parties and bodies, representing different and at times contrasting viewpoints and objectives.
I learned a lot about governance, the process of legislation, and other things that made me scratch my head. One thing I haven’t been able to shake: How much more the members of City Council make than their counterparts in Harrisburg.
Hint: it’s a lot. And as Philadelphia faces the major budget strains of the pandemic, now’s the perfect time for Council to consider doing their part — by taking salary reductions.
Salaries for first-term state lawmakers start at $88,610, with top leaders earning over $138,000, Spotlight PA reported last year. City Council members in 2019 had a base pay of around $130,000. (Councilmember Allan Domb, who makes about that much, donates his salary to schools and other recipients across the city.)* A 2016 Pew Trusts survey put Philadelphia third-highest among 15 major U.S. cities in average council salary, behind Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. By comparison, Philadelphia’s councilmembers then made over double the average salary of their counterparts in Pittsburgh ($64,140).
What do Philadelphia taxpayers get for this? Councilmembers are the city’s major legislative body, proposing bills to head to the mayor’s desk for passage or veto. It’s an important job, but also worth noting that Council takes heat for not starting meetings or hearings on time, often passing cosmetic resolutions and proclamations, and failing to solve the major problems affecting the city, like our staggering homicide rate.
From observing regular activity in Council, I can vouch their jobs are not easy. In a city as diverse as Philadelphia — with strong-willed citizens of varying mindsets — building consensus can be challenging. I’ve seen members accused of all manner of wrongdoing by their own constituents during public comment sessions. I’ve watched at least one councilmember keep a rowdy hearing on track with the gallery so full I thought it was a playoff game. They handle their work with grace and composure.
However, extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary responses. We’re seeing the city struggle and tourism and entertainment revenues all but disappear under the COVID lockdowns. Philadelphia faces a budget deficit that’s over $700 million and likely still growing.
One of the city’s most prominent and powerful corporate executives, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, announced in the spring that he and four other execs at his company would donate their salaries to COVID-19 charities. Perhaps Council can take a page from that book with a voluntary salary cut of their own.
The pandemic has also highlighted the poor relationship between state government and the commonwealth’s largest city government — tensions Council could help mend. Mayor Jim Kenney, for example, announced with support from councilmembers a lawsuit in October suing the commonwealth and General Assembly to override preemption of locally based gun regulations. The intention is to curb the rising shooting and homicide rates, but going after Harrisburg has apparently not worked in the past, while the money for lawyers, research, etc., comes from the same city budget that is operating at a significant deficit. And to be challenged by county-level legislators from one of 67 such bodies in the commonwealth, many of whom make 30% to 50% more money than their counterparts, may not endear state legislators to the cause. It’s like going to fund-raise for your charity and driving a nicer car than the people you’re soliciting.
If 17 councilmembers took $30,000 salary reductions, even temporarily, it would free up over half a million in funding for programs that could help soften the financial blows of the pandemic. In the long term, it also might be an unexpected olive branch to the “opposition” in Harrisburg and help create new bonds for what will be a long recovery process for both the city and state. Might even make it easier to get the state to go in on purchases to help the city, like the Tasers for police officers Council has sought.
Marco Cerino is a freelance journalist based in South Jersey. @CerinoRoyale
*Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include information about a Councilmember who donates his city salary.