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Council tentatively approves salary shift

Friday, January 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council took the first step toward allowing some Council members to divert all or portions of their own salaries Thursday.

Council members voted unanimously to allow the resolution to move forward. However, the issue will have to return to Council for it to become part of the code, and some Council members have reservations about the move.

Mayor Steve Adler sponsored the resolution. Adler, who has said he does not need the mayor’s salary of $82,000 a year, has two more members of his staff than other Council members. He would like to use his salary to hire additional staff for his office.

Adler has also put forward an idea, detailed in a recent Austin American-Statesman column, that would allow him to hire an even larger staff who would be paid by outside funding from private sources.

“I just believe that we’ve each been elected by different constituencies,” said Adler. “We come from different places and we think about things in different ways, and I believe that our constituents would expect us to be able to manage our budgets in a way that is in the best interests in our constituencies.

“And I believe that, as elected officials, we should be given as much control as possible over our offices,” Adler concluded.

Other Council members expressed misgivings about the resolution. Council Members Delia Garza and Pio Renteria, who come from two of the least affluent districts in the city, expressed concerns that the measures could discourage people with less money from running for office, that the option of reducing or retaining salaries could be used against candidates in campaigns and that paying lower salaries would necessitate some Council members to hold second jobs.

Indeed, the disparities between the districts are quite large. For example, according to the city demographer, the median incomes in Garza’s District 2 is $38,000 and Renteria’s District 3 is $35,000. In comparison, the median income in District 8, where Adler lives, is $109,000. The highest median income in the city is $128,000, in District 10.

On Thursday, Garza reiterated concern that the change could cause problems for less affluent Austinites hoping to run for office.

“My concern is that future Council members might feel some kind of political pressure to not accept their salaries, and I think it could prohibit middle-class families and middle-class people from seeking public office if they have to make the decision between that political pressure and being able to support their family,” said Garza.

Renteria agreed, saying, “I’m not even middle class, I am lower-middle class. … There’s no way I could survive, being on the dais here, without that income.”

Renteria said that his biggest concern was that it could become an issue on the campaign trail.

From the dais, Adler declared that he would “denounce” anyone who tried to use the amount of salary taken by any Council member during upcoming elections.

Council Member Ora Houston, who co-sponsored the item, said that the measure “gives people options” and doesn’t mandate that anyone take a lower salary.

In the past, Council members have used portions of their salary for other things. For example, former Council Member Bill Spelman, who never took a salary for himself, shifted $40,000 of his office budget to the Austin Public Library in 2012. That and other office budget shifts were detailed by the Austin Bulldog at the time.

Council Member Kathie Tovo asked why Council members in the past were able to shift areas of their budget and how this would be different, but she did not get a clear response.

Assistant City Attorney Leila Firestone explained that in order to change things that are in an ordinance, as are the salaries of Council, the city needs to pass another ordinance.


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