A week before half of Charleston City Council members face an election, members have raised their salaries by 15 percent a year.
The final approval on the measure passed 9-3 on Oct. 26 and takes effect in January.
Some members balked at the idea, saying it sent the wrong message to constituents, particularly considering the difficulties many have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Others said it would promote a broader field of candidates interested in seeking public office.
"For me it was more about making sure we have a diverse set of opinions that come to the table," said Councilman Jason Sakran."We don't want to exclude anybody."
Councilman Keith Waring proposed the idea, which was first discussed Sept. 28. Currently, council members make $17,500 per year. Waring originally proposed increasing that amount to $25,000 per year — a 43 percent increase — but council members passed an amended proposal that puts the starting salary at $20,131.
The ordinance also states that beginning in 2022, council members will receive the same annual cost-of-living increases that municipal employees, outside of police officers and firefighters, receive. Previously, council members did not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments. The last time members received a raise was in 2016, when council approved an increase from $15,000 to $17,500.
"When you look at the original proposal to where we ended up, it was a compromise measure which shows a majority of us can work together to get things accomplished," said Councilman Karl Brady Jr., who voted in favor of the measure.
The amended salary was based on an analysis done by both the Human Resources and legal departments.
The staff reported Oct. 12 that Mount Pleasant, a town of over 90,000 residents, offers a $15,000 salary for council members. North Charleston, a city of 120,000 residents, pays $20,657, and Savannah, with 140,000 residents, pays $25,000.
The $20,131 salary proposal for Charleston City Council came from factoring in annual cost-of-living increases from 2016 to 2021.
"We've gone through a really tough budgeting time, and we have some employees that have lived on a flat rate for a long time," Councilman Mike Seekings said. "To step up and give ourselves a raise before we make sure we can get everyone else in a place where they should be was just not the appropriate thing to do at this time."
Seekings as well as council members Harry Griffin and Carol Jackson opposed the measure.
Charleston residents are one week away from voting to elect half of their council members. Out of six seats up for election, three are contested.
Council members Griffin, Jackson and Robert Mitchell are facing opponents Nov. 2. Griffin and Jackson voted down the raise proposal while Mitchell voted in favor of it. Griffin faces public defender Stephen Bowden, Jackson faces preschool teacher Caroline Parker and Mitchell faces retired marine engineer Tim Weber.
"When we first started, city of Charleston council members always took less than other cities," Mitchell said. "We have always been behind everybody but done more."
Some council members, such as Jackson and Mitchell, are retirees while others hold jobs. Griffin works in logistics by day and said he has donated some of his salary back to the city. Council members do not typically expect to make a living off of their government salary alone, which Waring said may discourage more residents from running for office.
The debate has already played a role in at least one of the council races. Jackson, the District 12 incumbent, voted in favor of advancing the proposal Oct. 12, a move Parker, her opponent, took aim against.
After taking more time to consider the idea, Jackson changed her position.
"Its very hard to explain to people and I didn't want to have that monkey on my back of saying that it's not about me getting a raise," she said.
Jackson instead proposed taking the amount of funds raised by council members to create a subsidy or scholarship to supplement the income of someone who could not afford to run for office without assistance.