Salt Lake County: Well-paid council eyes raise

Politics » S.L. County panel considers giving itself $81,000 pay in exchange for more work.
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The pay for part-time lawmakers in Utah doesn't get any better than it does in Salt Lake County, where council members overseeing the state's most populous metro area pocket more money than the Senate president and House speaker.

Even so, these council members are considering a plan that could more than double their $35,000 salaries -- a politically thorny proposition that could propel them closer to full-time status, with earnings as high as $81,000 a year.

The sponsor, Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi, maintains it will better serve constituents by allowing council members to work longer hours, rely less on hired assistants and get paid for their time.

His envisioned result: A council that works more directly with its constituents and provides high enough wages to attract candidates who otherwise couldn't break away from their 9-to-5 jobs for an elected post.

"I just want people to be as good of elected officials as they can be," he said.

But Horiuchi already has taken a bruising from some council colleagues and from outside critics who note the measure would amount to a 130 percent pay raise at a time when the county is cutting millions from its budget and contemplating a wage freeze for employees in 2010.

Then again, the proposal wouldn't require any additional tax dollars. Each council member simply would work hours now covered by his or her assistant and trim that aide's pay in return. Those full-time assistants currently receive about $73,000 a year.

This salary shift would represent a stark departure from the pay scales of other part-time councils across the state, none of which pays its members more than $30,000 annually (not counting insurance or other perks). Although not unexpected in smaller places such as Grand County, where seven council members receive $8,500 a year to shepherd a county of 9,500 people, a sizable gap still appears in places like Salt Lake City, where the capital's council members make less than $23,000 annually.

In the Utah Legislature -- with part-time lawmakers -- the highest paid House and Senate members gleaned less than $25,000 in annual earnings.

"We are paid fairly well," Democratic Councilman Joe Hatch conceded. "That cannot be disputed or argued. But it also can't be disputed or argued that we work a lot harder than other part-time councils."

Indeed, Salt Lake County is the largest local government in Utah, with stewardship over 1 million people, an $800 million budget and more than 4,000 employees.

Yet, critics say, Horiuchi's proposals could nudge council members closer to the full-time commission that voters abandoned less than a decade ago, enabling them to work a 30-hour week. The subsequent $81,000 salary -- if council members accept it -- would exceed the county's median household income of $54,000.

What are the consequences of nearly a full-time work week?

It could muddle up the separation of powers, some warn, with the council dabbling more and more in the daily administration of county Mayor Peter Corroon.

"It is hard to manage by committee," Salt Lake City Councilwoman Jill Remington Love said.

Others argue it could lead to government growth, higher taxes and career politicians who no longer hold down day jobs.

"I don't like the idea of professional politicians," GOP County Councilman David Wilde said. "We have too many of them in D.C. We don't need them in Salt Lake County."

But supporters counter it could yield a more hands-on council. "I would much rather pay a County Council member $81,000 a year and have that be their full-time job," said Sen. Scott McCoy, a Salt Lake City Democrat who argues that part-time legislators generally are underpaid in Utah. "Then I would know that person would be giving me all of themselves [while still] earning a decent living and not having to worry about balancing outside employment with that job."

That's the conversation the County Council will have today. It's an issue that has grown so heated, Hatch says, it may not be "worth the price" to move it forward.

On tap today

The Salt Lake County Council is scheduled to discuss the pay proposal today at its 1:30 p.m. meeting at the County Government Center, 2001 S. State St.