On Council Compensation

On April 9th, by a 4-1 vote, the compensation committee recommended Kyle City Council should be paid $1,000 per month ($1,300 for the mayor) plus health insurance.

So far, criticisms to this proposal include, but certainly are not limited to, the following:

  • Council is a volunteer job. It should be about service to the community, not a paycheck.
  • You knew what the job paid when you ran for office.
  • Council appointed the compensation committee and therefore it cannot be trusted.
  • If council is spending too much time working, they aren’t using city staff appropriately.
  • This is the first I’m hearing about the proposal and therefore council must be doing something sneaky.
  • Typical politicians — just wanting to get paid.
  • Some cities pay their council. Others don’t. What gives?
  • Fix my roads first, or hire more staff, or lower my taxes, before you pay yourself.
  • Wish I could vote myself a pay raise.
  • A small raise I could support, but 10x is over the line — even if it’s only $1,000 per month.
  • Part time employees should not receive medical insurance.

I understand why some folks are skeptical. Paying elected officials is always a hard sell. In fact, I agreed with many of these perspectives until I was first elected in 2016. That’s when I received a crash course on just what it takes to serve the city well. I learned first-hand the value of having experienced councilmembers who understand how to get things done. I learned how few people can make the 20+ hour per week sacrifice — nearly full-time for the mayor — and that our current system of a volunteer-only council discriminates against the working class.

The 50,000 residents of Kyle hold the mayor and council to a very high standard. They don’t accept the excuse of “Sorry I had to work so I couldn’t help you with your problem.” They expect us to be responsive to their requests. They hold us responsible when their water smells funny. Or when their utility rates increase. Or if their home floods. Or [insert 1,000 more things].

But beyond the criticisms, over the last three years I have learned what is possible for council to achieve if they have the time and resources. What’s at stake in this discussion is nothing less than whether we wish to elect the Kyle City Council from a large, demographically representative candidate pool, and whether we wish to give council the necessary resources to meet our expectations.

A working-class council

Kyle has mostly young, dual-income, dual-commuting households with multiple children living at home. Because of the time required, most of our residents cannot easily afford to serve on the city council without diminishing their hours at work. The wealthy, the retired, and those whose jobs allow for extreme flexibility have an easier path.

To me, the best option for our city and our residents is to make the seats equally available to everyone. When you broaden the candidate pool, you get better candidates. When you get better candidates, you get a better council. When you get a better council, you get a better city.

That’s how I see it, and that’s why, last year, I proposed to council that we place before the voters a process whereby council can have its compensation considered. After much discussion, multiple public hearings, and widespread media coverage, we put forward a very clear set of rules for voters to consider in the November general election.

The proposition passed resoundingly, with 77% support.

The language calls for council to first appoint a compensation committee. That committee must meet publicly in accordance with the Open Meetings Act and make a recommendation to council. Then, council must hold two public hearings to receive citizen feedback before acting. After council acts, it must only incorporate changes into the next budget (as opposed to amending the current budget). And finally, council must only consider their wages through this process once every three years. It’s a clear, fair, and transparent way of approaching a delicate subject.

As to some of the other popular criticisms:

Part time employees should not receive medical insurance.

Most full-time workers receive medical insurance through their employer. If someone wishes to run for council and to do so must reduce their work to part-time, they could easily lose their health insurance. Without the option of medical insurance from the city, a person may be severely penalized for serving, and as such they would likely never run for office. Offering medical insurance allows council candidates to run for office without the fear of such a harsh consequence.

Council is a volunteer job. It should be about service to the community, not a paycheck.

Being on council is an act of service to the community. But it’s not a typical volunteer position. 19 years ago, when the population was 5,000 people, council pay was established in the city charter at $100 per month. Since then the city has grown in population from 5,000 to 50,000. Council responsibilities have increased proportionally. It’s a high-stress, highly demanding position. Councilmembers often work 20-30 hours per week and must commit to this routine for three years. The mayor’s position is, by all accounts, full time. My schedule is filled with meetings, emails, phone calls, community events, and more. What’s more, because I must pursue earning a living, I’m still constantly turning down opportunities that, if I could find the time, would be valuable to the community.

You knew what the job paid when you ran for office.

That’s true. The current council chose to serve understanding that there was no meaningful compensation. However, as former Kyle councilmember Damon Fogley recently stated, “When I campaigned for city council knowing the stipend was only $43 after taxes every two weeks, I had no idea how challenging the position would be.” He went on to say that, like most who successfully campaign for council, he spent several thousand personal dollars in the months campaigning, which means after 3.5 years of service, the stipend didn’t cover his initial investment.  

Council appointed the compensation committee and therefore it cannot be trusted.

The city charter (and Texas Constitution) makes it clear that council, and council alone, oversees the budget – including setting wages for all, even council. We are responsible for the decision and cannot shirk that responsibility to anyone else. That said, the process the voters approved calls for significantly more transparency and public input than any other employee compensation decisions. We proposed it that way intentionally. But no matter what, the buck always stops with the seven members on council.

If council is spending too much time working, they aren’t using city staff appropriately.

Staff and council do not have the same set of duties. Council is not tasked with mowing parkland, or issuing permits, or collecting utility bill payments, or managing a department. Council must work with the community to derive a vision and then execute that vision — in part through the city manager and in part through independent council action. There are many tasks for which staff is best suited and many tasks for which council is best suited. Compensating council with a modest wage for their time is not an impediment to nor an indictment on city staff.

Some cities pay their council. Others don’t. What gives?

Our region has changed rapidly in the last twenty years. Many cities, like Kyle, established their city charter before exploding with growth. Original charters often say exactly what a council should be paid, rather than the process council should go through to adjust their compensation. That was by design and probably worked when the cities were small. But as each city grows, councils will find it more and more difficult to serve their city well without appropriate compensation. Eventually, those councils may be compelled to follow the transparent and somewhat painful path that Kyle is on now and that others have traveled in recent years.

Fix my roads first, or hire more staff, or lower my taxes, before you pay yourself.

The proposed compensation, if it were in place today, would represent .0018 of the total budget. For those dollars we could open the seats to vastly more candidates. With better candidates comes a better, more responsive council. A better council means better stewardship of the budget, more strategic planning, a better-led staff, and ultimately more bang for your tax buck.

A small raise I could support, but 10x is over the line — even if it’s only $1,000 per month.

The $100 stipend was put in place 19 years ago, when we were 10x smaller, so the change is directly proportional to the change in the number of residents the seven members of council must serve. But beyond that, for council compensation to matter, it should be modest, but also meaningful enough to change the outcomes for our city. In my opinion, the proposed wages are the bare minimum of what should be paid. They are modest, but at the same time meaningful enough to remove barriers when working-folks consider whether to serve on the Kyle City Council.  

In conclusion, I leave you with a thought. Consider yourself in this discussion, not as a random member of the population or as a critic, but as someone who is thinking of running for council. Consider what sacrifices you would have to make to serve 20+ hours per week for three years. Consider the constant pressure of making difficult decisions about development, zoning, downtown revitalization, infrastructure priorities, lawsuits, the spending of millions of other people’s dollars, and the daily grind of responding to citizen complaints and inquiries on these matters and more. Consider how that role would affect your career, your family, and your relationships in the community. Ask yourself, for you personally, is it worth it? What about for most of our residents, who have mortgages and careers and children? For most, would raising a hand to serve on council for no pay be remotely feasible?

As a fellow taxpayer in Kyle, what I can confidently say is, we get what we pay for. In the case of council compensation, by paying council for their time, we open the candidate pool to the entire city. We equip council to meet the high expectations of 50,000 residents with more coming daily. And thus, ultimately, we invest in ourselves and in the future of our city.