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3,000% Raise? It's Like This ...

The San Bernardino City Council -- salary $50 a month -- seeks its first increase since 1937.

April 10, 2006|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

San Bernardino Councilman Neil Derry wants a raise, and, yes, he knows how it probably looks: another politician with his hand out.

At first glance, the City Council's request for a nearly 3,000% pay increase looks outrageous.

But the last time the council received a raise was in 1937 -- when Lou Gehrig was playing first base for the New York Yankees -- and their current salary is just $50 a month. That's barely enough to pay a bar tab for a night, Derry said.

"When it gets down to it, how much can people sacrifice to serve the public?" asked Derry, a council member for five years.

As the lowest-paid city employees, the seven-member San Bernardino council is asking residents to bump its pay to 12.5% of the county judges' salaries, or about $1,550 a month. The council governs an ethnically diverse city still reeling from last decade's job crunch and suffering from high crime and poverty rates.

"On a general level, maybe that's the reason why the city has some of the problems it has," said Councilman Chas A. Kelley. "If you don't have a full-time councilmember driving out there to look at the problem, then it's not likely to get solved."

The council voted unanimously in February to put the resolution on the June ballot.

Councilwoman Wendy McCammack missed the vote while recuperating from surgery. She said she would have voted against the resolution, and that she had a moral problem voting on her own raise.

"We ran for the job knowing what it paid," said McCammack, in her sixth year on the council. "This seems kind of self-serving."

As in many cities, the part-time council members hold day jobs and change gears to perform council duties at night and on weekends.

Derry, a regional manager of public affairs for Southern California Edison, spends about 20 hours weekly working on city business.

Kelley, an electronic technician in San Bernardino, said he spent about 40 hours a week on council matters.

"There's a lot of work that goes into this job. Far more than residents realize, but ultimately, it's up to the voters," said Kelley, noting that a pay raise would help attract qualified council candidates.

The subject of a raise was on the ballot four years ago and voters were not in a giving mood. It was rejected by a 2% margin.

In the same 2002 election, the city voters gave the mayor -- a separate, full-time position -- a $34,000 raise, to $70,000 a year.

Early last month, nearby Loma Linda's City Council voted unanimously to nearly double its pay from $377 to $711 a month. Loma Linda has 20,000 residents. San Bernardino has nearly 10 times as many.

The San Bernardino City Council cannot simply give itself a raise as the Loma Linda council did because the city charter specifies that voters must approve it.

Not all councils are looking for raises. The San Diego City Council, paid about $75,000 a year, recently voted unanimously against a pay hike next year.

The city's salary-setting commission recommended an increase in order to attract talented candidates. But the council turned it down, citing the city's financial woes, according to council spokeswoman Pam Hardy.

According to the League of California Cities, the pay for city council members in the state ranges from zero in towns such as Orange County's tiny Villa Park, to nearly $150,000 for members of the Los Angeles City Council.

Derry is confident the raise will pass in San Bernardino and takes comfort in knowing that the last one almost squeezed through.

"We don't do it for the pay," Derry said. "But then again, we don't want to threaten our retirements, either."

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