Most members of city councils are seen around town in suits and dresses, attending fundraisers, meeting constituents and attending important meetings — but what they get paid barely covers the cost of gas and food.
Councilmembers in San Mateo County collect up to $750 a month in stipends and many spend an average of 20 hours a week on city business. When the math is done, some elected officials are being paid as little as $3.75 an hour for their work. That is just 40 cents higher than the 1988 state minimum wage and $3.75 less than today’s state minimum wage.
State law restricts cities from raising their stipends more than 5 percent at any given time. However, many cities in the county have forgone raises in recent years, opting instead to focus on budget issues and employee compensation. Some earn a modest state retirement and health coverage similar to that offered to city employees.
There are 16 cities in San Mateo County that compensate their council members and the average monthly stipend is $503. Four cities — Atherton, Hillsborough, Portola Valley and Woodside — offer council members no stipend. Redwood City pays council members the most at $750 per month. Of the cities that pay, Brisbane, East Palo Alto and San Carlos give their council members the least at $300 per month. That’s before taxes.
"Obviously, you’re not running for a second income,” said San Bruno Councilman Rico Medina.
Medina is serving his second year of his first term. A former Parks and Recreation employee, Medina now works for a flooring company. He uses his personal cell phone to conduct city business while traveling for work. He makes calls to City Manager Connie Jackson from his car and takes breaks to visit constituents. He tries to take a few hours on the weekends to sit at Starbucks with council packets, before the next week’s meeting, he said.
San Bruno council members earn $486 a month, a meager state retirement and the option of Kaiser health care equivalent to $825 a month. They also are offered a $10,000 life insurance plan.
"The little stipend helps with the small things like gas,” said Medina, who does not participate in the health plan.
South San Francisco pays council members $500 a month, but allows them access to city cars or reimburses them for gas. The city also covers the cost of computers, printers, fax machines and cell phones for council members.
Most cities will reimburse council members for major conference expenses or gas, based on Internal Revenue Service compensation rates, but few council members ask for the refund. They save the expense reports for major conferences.
Each member of the Belmont City Council has an automatic $1,000 reimbursement they can use on whatever city-related conferences or expenses they see fit.
Belmont council members earn $390 a month and a state retirement plan equivalent to 2 percent of their highest annual salary multiplied by the number of years they served. They are also offered a flexible benefits plan worth $1,121 a month — a plan on par with city management employees. They also earn a $19 a month vision plan and $50,000 life insurance plan, said Human Resources Director Greg Sam.
Belmont council members are entitled to ask for reimbursement for Internet services. However, "the reality is everyone already has Internet access anyway,” said City Clerk Terry Cook.
Half Moon Bay City Council members earn $300 a month or $277 after tax deductions. They do not earn health benefits, no retirement and no phone or Internet deductions, said Finance Director Jud Norrell.
The council discussed increasing their salary a few years ago, but decided instead to focus on budget problems, Norrell said.
In 2002, San Mateo voters approved a council salary increase from $300 to $600 to mirror state law, which also allows the salary to increase by 5 percent a year. The increase required voter approval because San Mateo is a charter city. The salary has not increased since 2002.
"When I decided to run for council, I didn’t even know there was a stipend,” said San Mateo Deputy Mayor Carole Groom.
Yet there are still those who argue that an increased council salary could improve the job and those seeking election.
The Rancho Mirage City Council recently voted to increase its salary to $2,500. The council originally suggested a $3,000 salary, but settled on the lower amount after hearing from the public, according to the Desert Sun newspaper.
The city has an estimated population of 16,700. Those in favor of the plan argued that the increase would attract more qualified candidates to the council. Other Coachella Valley cities have similar salaries. Palm Desert council members earn $3,500 per month. Rancho Mirage is tied with Indian Wells, which also pays its leaders $2,500 a month, according to the Desert Sun.
The thought of raising council salaries is attractive to Burlingame Councilwoman Terry Nagel. Civil service attracts people to the position, but the lack of pay and demanding hours usually confine the council to retirees or part-time workers, she said.
"Let’s face it, this is an expensive place to live. Most people would find [the salary] a disincentive,” Nagel said. "It does tend to encourage people who don’t work. The council should represent those who live in the city.”
Nagel reduced her full-time schedule by one day — or a 20 percent salary cut — to allow one workday a week to devote to city business. Nagel will spend that day meeting with constituents, city staff or attending conferences, she said.
Most council members are reluctant to discuss raises because it seems self-serving, Nagel said.
"Frankly, we don’t do it for the money,” she said. "We do it to serve the community.”
Dana Yates can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344—5200 ext. 106.