The price we pay for government

By Dave Ress, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 13--Nobody much likes to talk about it at city halls or county offices, but it costs money to have elected officials meet once or twice a month to make rules for a community or decide how to spend taxpayers' funds.

Few Peninsula-area localities disclose elected officials' pay in budgets, annual financial reports or websites. Hardly any have changed their pay rates or benefits in years.

"It's not something that's at the forefront," said Newport News council member Herbert H. Bateman Jr., who was the sole vote against the city's last pay hike for council members, back in 2001.

Newport News and Hampton, like most of the state's larger cities, pay council members the maximum allowed by state law. Poquoson pays its council members a fraction of what state law says it could. Peninsula counties tend to peg supervisor pay at state guidelines, though Isle of Wight pays more.

"I think elected officials generally earn what they are paid, and my sense is that the difference in compensation is generally driven by the more complex job that a city elected official has over a county elected official," said Christopher Newport University political scientist Quentin Kidd.

He doesn't see the difference as coming from different attitudes about politicking and wooing the public, though.

"Cities have more complex public safety, education, and health and welfare issues to deal with. The Code of Virginia stipulates that cities provide a more comprehensive set of services to city residents than counties do to county residents, and this is a recognition of the different level of complex human services needs across the two kinds of jurisdictions. This is generally why tax rates are higher in cities than in counties, as well," he said.

Bateman figures he spends 15 to 20 hours a week on council business. In addition to the twice monthly meetings, he sits as the city representative on bodies like the airport commission, and fields scores of emails, phone calls and letters a week from residents who need city services or have questions about city policies.

"When I'm driving down the street and see a power company box with graffiti, I'll stop, take a picture and send it in," he said. "Sometimes, it's like you live this job."

Like many elected officials, Bateman feels a key part of the job is showing up at community events, too.

"I look at it as community service. Instead of something like the Lions Club, I sit on City Council," said Poquoson Mayor W. Eugene Hunt Jr.

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He, too, figures he spends about 15 or 20 hours a week on city business. And he's not doing it for the money.

"I think we're still being paid what was set when we became a city in 1975," he said. That sum: $100 a month for council members and $125 a month for the mayor.

Poquoson's budget calls for spending $64,275 a year on its council. The council members' stipends account for a total of $8,700 while operating expenses come to $13,900, covering everything from the thick books of meeting papers prepared for council members to lights and heat for their meeting room. The services of Assistant City Manager Judy Wiggins, who works part of the time as the clerk to the council, account for the bulk of the remainder.

Cities pay more

Hampton's budget, on the other hand, sets almost $474,000 for its council operations. That includes salaries of $25,000 for Mayor George Wallace and $23,000 for council members -- the maximum for cities were fewer than 175,000 residents under the Code of Virginia. Salaries for the city clerk, two deputy clerks and an executive assistant, account for $201,000. The council's operating expenses will jump by roughly $12,000, to about $107,000, because the cost of live-streaming its meetings is shifting from the city's informational technology budget to the council.

Last year, council expenses included an allotment of $17,450 for travel, $11,693 to advertise its meetings, as required by state law, and $1,550 for dues, membership fees and mileage.

The budget figure is less than the state Auditor of Public Accounts reports as legislative spending, a common pattern, in part because Hampton includes the dues the city pays for membership in such organizations as the Virginia Municipal League as council expenses when it files its report to the state auditor, said city finance director Karl Daughtrey.

The auditor also requires cities and counties to count fringe benefits for elected body members and their staff, though many localities, like Hampton, account for those in a citywide personnel account. Daughtrey estimated that about $100,000 of the difference between the city budget figure of $474,000 and the auditor's report of $777,000 came from dues, leaving the rest for fringe benefits and other board and clerk's office expenses.

Newport News' budget covers a mayor's salary of $27,000 and salaries of $25,000 for each for the six other members of the council. The council is budgeted to use $51,500 for materials and supplies, too. The city clerk's spending for a staff of four comes to $312,000.

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While Hampton doesn't break out the costs of such fringe benefits as health insurance for its part-time council, Newport News' part-time council members' health insurance and other fringe benefits amount to $51,000 a year.

The Auditor of Public Accounts' approach to calculating council costs puts the bill higher than does the Newport News city budget -- $709,000 in fiscal year 2013 versus this year's city budget total for council and clerk of $598,000. The auditor's figure would include pension contributions for the clerk's office as well as a share of general city expenses that the city budget does not attribute to the council and clerk.

All in all, the state auditor estimates the council's cost amounts to less than $4 for every man, woman and child in the city.

In contrast, the $51 million-a-year bill for the General Assembly, its support and research staff and information technology services, translate to a bit more than $6.25 for every person in the state.

Legislators are paid less than council members in Newport News and Hampton -- $18,000 for state Senators and $17,640 for members of the House of Delegates -- but they get benefits that council members don't, including aides and allowances for a district office. And while they, like council members and county supervisors, are part timers, legislators can get pensions from the Virginia Retirement System as well as health insurance benefits.

Pension benefits

On the Peninsula, only the four Newport News council members who took office before 2010, when the city closed its own pension system to new employees, are entitled to retirement benefits. Those pension costs are accounted for as council expenses by the state auditor, but not in the city budget

Williamsburg pays its council members less than the cap state law sets for cities its size -- $7,200 compared to a state cap of $11,500. The mayor's $9,600 salary is also less than the cap. They don't get fringe benefits.

The Williamsburg council's operating expenses are set for $98,000 this year. That includes nearly $52,000 for the annual city audit, the $5,500 cost of the biennial citizens' survey and a range of membership dues the city pays to belong to various associations, City Manager Jackson Tuttle said.

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The state auditor's calculation of council costs includes the $161,000 cost of the city clerk's office, although the clerk does a variety of jobs in addition to supporting the council, Tuttle said.

But the big reason the bill looks high on a per-resident basis, at $21.35 per person, is that the city's population is so small, he said.

That makes the Town of Smithfield's per capita spending of $24.15 look high, too. It pays a stipend to council members and to members of the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals and the Board of Historic and Architectural Review for each meeting they attend, some which other localities account for in different departments. The budget for those stipends is $40,000, Town Manager Peter Stephenson said. Council members get no fringe benefits and the travel and training budget is $6,000.

But the $198,000 total budget for the council covers the town clerk, who, as in Williamsburg, has other jobs, too. The money also covers association dues, as well as services other localities account for separately, such as the town attorney. The council budget also covers participation in the regional planning bodies.

Isle of Wight doubles JCC

Isle of Wight County has taken up an option allowed counties, but not cities, to diverge from a maximum suggested by state law. Its board chairman receives $13,598, the vice chairman $12,980 and supervisors $11,744. The state guideline for counties its size is $7,000 for supervisors and $8,800 for board chairs.

"They increased it before I was elected," said Chairman Byron "Buzz" Bailey. "It works out to about 25 cents an hour, and if that's too much, so be it." The Isle of Wight board chairman's pay actually translates to $6.54 an hour for a 40-hour-a-week, year-round job. Bailey's estimate works out to about 1,000 hours a week.

In addition to $61,812 for supervisors' pay, Isle of Wight's budget includes $27,335 for the part-time services of its clerk, $42,660 for health insurance, $90,000 for professional services, $40,000 for advertising, $7,000 for dues and association memberships, $5,000 for travel and training, and $3,000 to sponsor special events. On a per-capita basis, that's $9.44, well above the state average for counties of $5.42.

James City County, though nearly twice the size, has a smaller board budget. Its supervisors' $7,000 a year salary and the $2,000 they receive for service on the James City Service Authority bring them up to the state guideline for counties the size of James City. The chair and vice chair receive the additional $1,800 and $1,200 a year suggested by the state code. The board's budget also covers a clerk. On top of that, its operating expenses are pegged at just over $81,000.

York County's$305,000 council budget also covers a clerk, in addition to the state guideline-pegged salaries of $9,000 for supervisors and the additional sums for the chair and vice chair. Its budget includes $104,800 for contractual services.

Gloucester County is whacking $29,000 out of its board of supervisors' budget this year by moving out of an old county building sold in 2013 and leased through the middle of this year. That brings its board budget down below $85,000.

For the county, that move is a three-for, said board chairman Robert Orth.

First, he said, it saves money; second, it moves county staff closer together; and third, the trigger, an offer from an investor to buy the county building, puts property back onto the tax rolls. All that became an option when the school board closed T.C. Walker Elementary School in 2012 and decided to move its offices there, freeing up a building in the courthouse complex.

"It was all a cascade of events," he said.

Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.


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