D.C. Council salaries are second-highest among big U.S. cities

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 11:52 PM

D.C. Council members are the second-highest-paid big-city legislators in the nation and spend more on staff and other expenses per capita than their counterparts across the country, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trust.

The study, by the Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, spent several months compiling data from governments in 15 major cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose and the District.

For years, the six-figure salaries of D.C. Council members have been a point of contention because the positions are considered part-time and members are allowed to hold other jobs. But the Pew report, released Wednesday, is likely to renew the debate about whether council members earn their salaries: $125,583 for 12 regular members and $190,000 for Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), $10,000 less than the mayor receives.

For the comparison with other city councils, Pew averaged the D.C. Council chairman's and other members' salaries and came up with a figure of $130,538.

The District trailed only Los Angeles, where the average council salary was $178,789, and council members in Los Angeles are considered full-time and do not hold other jobs, according to the report. New York, with a part-time council, ranked third, at $121,725.

Several D.C. Council members strongly defended their salaries, saying it is misleading to group them with council members in other cities. As the report noted, D.C. Council members say, they are both state and city legislators, which makes their jobs well worth the money.

"No other city in the country confronts the kinds of issues confronted by ours," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "It's frankly absurd to compare us to other cities. Cities don't organize prison systems. Cities don't organize mental health systems. . . . Cities don't have oversight over electricity regulation. . . . We are a state, county and city all under one roof."

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was even more emphatic.

"We deserve more, quite frankly," Barry said. "This government is the most unique government of any government in the world. . . . We put in 40 or 50 hours a week in addition to constituent service. I think we are really underpaid."

But Brown appeared uncomfortable with the issue. When asked about council members' salaries, Brown, starting to walk away, said, "I voted no."

In 2006, the council voted to raise regular members' salaries to $115,000, a $22,000 increase. Brown opposed the measure, along with Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), both of whom have left the council.

"There was a vote on that before, and I voted no," Brown repeated as he continued to walk away.

Since that pay increase took effect in 2007, council members' annual salaries have risen to more than $125,000 because of annual cost-of-living adjustments of between 3 percent and 5 percent. The council has forsaken salary increases for fiscal 2010 and 2011 because of major spending cuts. Along with other city employees, council members will also take four unpaid furlough days this year to help the city close a projected $400 million budget shortfall.

The Pew report also concluded that the D.C. Council costs taxpayers more per capita than the governing bodies of the other cities examined, a distinction that might be connected to its responsibility for overseeing some functions generally performed by states.

The council, with 198 employees, has a combined budget of $19 million for this fiscal year, including funding of individual members' offices and staffs. The councils in New York and Chicago have bigger staffs, but Pew concluded that the D.C. Council has far more employees per capita than governing bodies in all the other cities. The District has 3,029 residents for every council member and employee, fewer than half as many as Chicago, according to the report.

Pew also looked at council spending relative to city population and found that the D.C. Council spends more than three times as much per capita as Philadelphia, which ranked second. Still, because the District's $6.1 billion general fund budget exceeds those of many other cities, the council's share of overall city spending trails the percentages of its counterparts in all but Houston, Boston and New York.

"There is not a single right way to look at costs. You can look at it from a variety of perspectives," said Thomas Ginsberg, project manager of the Philadelphia Research Initiative. "But no one other city in this study is also a national capital. That does have an effect on this, on some level."

D.C. Council members receive $429,000 each to staff their offices. Committee chairmen - including all but one new member, Sekou Biddle (D-At Large) - also receive about $400,000 more a year to pay committee staff.

The Pew report found that eight of the 15 city councils surveyed had to reduce their budgets between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2011 because of the recession. But the D.C. Council's budget grew by 11 percent during that period, the highest percentage of any of the cities.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of the most fiscally conservative members, said he is not troubled by the council's spending given the demands it faces.

"We could use more staff, not less," said Evans, who noted that he has eight staff members in his office. "We get an enormous number of calls into my office."

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