Tight budgets have made public officials’ salaries a sensitive issue. When the news broke in February that Buncombe County’s commissioners ranked among the highest-paid in the state, they unanimously voted themselves a pay cut. And an analysis by UNC's School of Government found that long-running Register of Deeds Otto DeBruhl (now retired) and his unusually large staff were also among the highest-paid.
But what about Asheville?
To find out, Xpress compared selected salaries with those in two similarly sized Tar Heel cities: Jacksonville and Greenville. The results? Asheville’s elected officials make substantially more. And though the compensation for top staff is roughly comparable, Asheville has more department heads than those two cities, whose populations stand just below and above Asheville, respectively.
Asheville pays its City Council members and mayor over 50 percent more than either Jacksonville or Greenville does. Mayor Terry Bellamy, for example, gets $24,897 a year, including a $6,195 expense allowance. That compares to $15,700 for Greenville’s mayor (including a $3,000 travel allowance), and $10,400 for Jacksonville’s (with a $200 vehicle allowance).
Meanwhile, Asheville’s five City Council members each make $18,281 a year, including a $4,475 expense allowance. Their counterparts in Greenville receive $11,700 (including $3,000 for travel and a $1,200 vehicle allowance), and Jacksonville’s Council members get a flat $7,200.
Supporters of higher salaries say they make it more feasible for nonwealthy people to serve as elected officials. Critics, however, often counter that it is, after all, the public's money, and the demands of the job may not justify the level of compensation.
Fair and adequate?
After reviewing the numbers, Xpress asked Council members how many hours per week they spend on city business, and how they feel about their compensation.
“Between 20 and 30 hours,” Gordon Smith reported. “Council meetings, committee meetings, constituent meetings, events, correspondence, planning, research and reading — there's a lot that goes into being a responsible member of City Council.” He added that he believes the compensation is “adequate.”
“I believe it’s difficult to quantify the hours a Council member devotes to the office, since much of it is up to the individual, and much of it is informal,” noted Cecil Bothwell, adding that he averages about 18.5 hours a week fulfilling his role. “I try to make time for anyone or any group with an issue they need to discuss, and every trip to the grocery or hardware store can easily become a constituent meeting. Although I covered local government as a reporter in the years before I ran for office, I had no idea how much time the job actually entails.”
Vice Mayor Brownie Newman said: “The amount of time spent on City Council work varies a lot from week to week. The week before last, for example, I had two whole days of City Council meetings. I probably spent about 25 hours that week. … Other weeks are much lighter. I estimate I spend about 15 hours a week … on average.”
Newman added: “My understanding is that our Council is paid a little more than the average for cities our size. However, my sense is that the level of community involvement is a lot higher in Asheville. … Although I have no direct data to back this up, I would guess that members of our City Council spend a level of time on their jobs that is more typical of the larger metro communities across the state.”
Of the five Council members who had responded as we went to press (Esther Manheimer and Bellamy hadn’t), the highest time estimate came from Jan Davis, who said he devotes anywhere from 20 to 50 hours a week to his Council duties.
“It is not possible to know the interruptions in my work day to answer emails, phone calls and drop-by visits, as I have a storefront and parking lot,” wrote Davis. “I serve on more than a dozen boards and commissions. … I take them very seriously and attend most meetings, as well as numerous subcommittees and task forces.”
“Presently, I don't think there is a Council member doing this work for the compensation,” he concluded. “Our compensation benchmarks well with comparable-size cities.”
Four respondents said their compensation is fair and adequate; Bothwell, however, said he believes future Council members (excluding anyone currently serving) should receive an additional $6,000 a year.
The upper echelon
However controversial elected officials’ salaries may be, the city spends far more money paying staff. Personnel costs are the city's biggest budget item: $72.3 million — 53 percent of the current $136 million budget — is allocated for salaries, wages and benefits. Due to the continuing budget crunch, city personnel costs actually declined by $1.7 million this year, and city staffers haven’t had a raise in the last two years.
Department heads in Asheville and Greenville receive roughly similar salaries (see chart, “The Money Conundrum”), but Asheville has more people in top-level posts — 16 (including the vacant chief financial officer position), compared with Greenville’s 12 and Jacksonville’s 10. The Asheville staffers also receive a vehicle allowance (ranging from $2,400 to $7,200 annually) or a take-home vehicle. Greenville relies more on take-home vehicles for top staffers, and some department heads in both Greenville and Jacksonville get neither.
Of course, population size doesn’t tell the whole story. The cost of living, internal organization and political priorities vary widely among cities. Another key factor is length of service. Asheville department heads Roderick Simmons, Scott Burnette and Kelley Dickens, for example, are relatively new to their positions, meaning their salaries are still at the lower end of the scale.
City Manager Gary Jackson takes issue with the whole idea of comparing Asheville with those other cities, which he says "are not nearly as dynamic, don't have the number of calls, don't require the number of people in the field, don't require the level of supervision and, consequently, the level of executive management."
Not every city, he notes, has a facility like the Civic Center or water and transit systems, all of which require additional management. Jackson also points to Hickory and Rocky Mount, which have 17 and 18 department heads, respectively.
"The more I think about it,” he continues, “the more I am convinced you will not find a twin city … to match Asheville's service demands and management challenges per capita."
As for city salaries, he says, "Our goal is to keep competent people and pay competitive wages. We have invested in doing the surveys to know if we're competitive."
"Some cities just aspire to be a Wal-Mart city," Jackson observes, adding, "Asheville aspires to be more."
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.