Memo to Boston City Councilors: Is this really the vote you want to stake your reputations on?
Is voting for your own 20 percent pay raise really the issue worth going to the mat for — and breaking with the mayor who has been fairly generous in sharing some of the wide-ranging powers of her office with her former council colleagues?
Having been offered an 11 percent pay raise in a proposal filed in late August by Mayor Michelle Wu, councilors turned around and voted instead for a 20 percent boost for themselves and for the mayor. (Both raises would kick in following the next election — in 2024 for councilors and 2026 for mayor.) But that was just a step too far for Wu, who vetoed the pay raise ordinance earlier this week, setting up Wednesday’s confrontation with the council.
“Like all workers, our elected officials should receive salary increases, but they should square with the increases that our front-line workers have received and are receiving,” Wu said in her veto message to the council.
She also reminded them that “Boston’s municipal workforce, like our residents, also now face growing inflation and staggering public transportation challenges.”
Councilors certainly should be mindful that the raises they are looking for — from their current $103,500 a year salaries to $125,000 — would put them significantly above the median household income in Boston of $76,298, according to the latest census figures. Wu’s earlier recommendation would have increased their salaries to $115,000 and that of the mayor from its current $207,000 to $230,000. The council upped that to $250,000 — more than the salaries of mayors in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
Wu’s proposal was based on a recommendation by the city’s Compensation Advisory Board. It also included substantial pay raises for newly appointed Police Commissioner Michael Cox and Fire Commissioner Paul F. Burke, upping the current pay range of $200,000 to $250,000 for both posts to between $260,000 and $300,000. The head of the city’s legal department and several other department heads — public works, parks and recreation — would also get raises retroactive to last August.
The council didn’t touch any of those proposed pay hikes — only that for the city’s elected officials.
But by doing so — and by continuing down this politically unpalatable path — councilors also hold out the promise of similar pay hikes for every unionized city worker when their collective bargaining agreements come up for renewal.
As the Boston Municipal Research Bureau put it in urging Wu to veto the measure, with so many collective bargaining agreements still pending, “this would set an unsustainable financial expectation for union salary increases.”
At best it makes the work of city labor negotiators more difficult. At worst it threatens to break the bank.
And councilors aren’t exactly hurting financially compared to their constituents. They did, after all, get a 4 percent pay hike in 2020 and 13.7 percent in 2016.
The Research Bureau also pointed to the fact that the proposed 20 percent raises were “on the high side” compared to peer cities reviewed by the Compensation Advisory Board.
Councilors in Denver, for example, will receive $101,167 by July 2023. Councilors in high-price Seattle already earn $129,000 a year, but councilors in similarly sized Columbus, Ohio, earn a mere $57,000.
Wu was absolutely right to veto the council’s attempted money grab — and in the process try to save councilors from political embarrassment and save the city and its taxpayers from the potentially budget-busting aftermath of all those collective bargaining agreements trying to keep that pace.
The council passed its pay raise bill unanimously. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time — who doesn’t like more money? But it wasn’t a good idea, and surely there are at least a few cooler heads on the council to stop this unnecessary confrontation with the mayor — and head off its broader fiscal consequences.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.