After over an hour of discussion, the Madison Common Council rejected a pay raise for city alders last night. That’s less than one week after those same alders approved the funding for the pay raise in an amendment to the 2023 city operating budget.
Currently, Madison’s twenty alders make $14,904 a year, assuming that they work around 20 hours a week. Under the proposed ordinance change, alders would have made $20,604 a year. That would have come out to an hourly raise of over $5 an hour.
The idea for a pay raise came out of the city’s Task Force on the Structure of City Government, or TFoGs. That task force put forward a list of suggestions to make city government more effective and accessible to all Madison residents. Some of those suggestions called for implementing term limits, reducing the number of alders, and raising alder pay and making alders full time city employees.
Those questions were put before voters last year, and residents voted against raising alder pay, making them full time employees, and reducing the number of alders. Voters did, however, support implementing a term limit.
But while raising alder pay was denied by residents last year, the issue was brought forward once again last week as an amendment to the 2023 Operating Budget. There, only a simple majority was needed, and the amendment was passed.
But just because they included it in the budget, that doesn’t mean the raise is a done deal. Last night, the raise needed to pass a two-thirds vote in order to go into effect after the spring 2023 election.
District 8 alder Juliana Bennett gave an emotional plea for the pay raise last night. She recounted how she had to work two jobs earlier this year, on top of working as an alder. Still, she says she received an eviction notice after missing her rent three months in a row.
While Alder Bennett, a student at UW Madison, was able to pay her back rent with the help of friends and family, she says it hurts to be fighting for housing equality while not being able to pay rent herself.
“I know that this isn’t supposed to be personal, but don’t we want people who are low income, people who don’t have the means to serve in these positions, people underserved and underprivileged, to be able to serve as alder?” Bennett says. “How can we say we want those people to serve as alder and at the same time say they don’t deserve to have a livable wage?”
District 6 Alder Brian Benford pushes back. He says that people don’t run for office for the money, but for altruistic reasons.
“I want to say, respectfully, if it’s too hard, if it’s too much of a demand, if it’s just too much, (then) step aside. Just step aside,” Benford says.
Benford adds that the notion that the low pay creates a barrier to low-income residents, is quote “a bucket of sheep droppings.”
“That struggle informs our service,” Benford says. “If we are truly looking at it that way, it informs our service (by) reminding us that there are so many other people living in the city of Madison that don’t have a seat at the table, that don’t have the power, that don’t have their voices heard. I don’t believe that’s the case.”
Still, some alders last night said that the work simply does not equal the pay that they receive – and creates a barrier to access for future residents who might consider elected office
While the salary estimates that alders work around 20 hours a week, some alders say that they work more than that, and still go home with the same pay.
District 10 Alder Yannette Figueroa Cole says that if she didn’t have a job that already supported her, she would never have enough time to give the position the time that it needs.
“I am in a very privileged position,“ Figueroa Cole says. “Doing this job should not be reserved for people in my situation, someone established, someone with the time to dedicate the means to this job. The city deserves attention and time, instead of having to split time between two or three extra jobs.”
District 12 Alder Syed Abbas, who voted against the raise, says that paying $20,000 a year would not allow someone to quit their day job, and it wouldn’t reduce the amount of time alders would need to put into the job.
Abbas says that, to remedy that, he has other ideas.
“In that particular situation, it is critical that we strengthen and use that money in our Common Council, and help alders by providing them some sort of assistant,” Abbas says, “(for instance) one assistant could be provided to four alders to help with emails from constituents. Again, this is very debatable.”
Currently, the twenty alders on the council share a team of five staff – a chief of staff, legislative analyst, community engagement strategist, legislative assistant, and administrative assistant.
Abbas says that, before giving himself a raise, he would like to see the city put the money towards those who serve on the city’s committees and boards. Most of those positions are unpaid.
The idea that Madison alders work too hard for too little reward is not new. Several alders in recent memory have resigned from the council to focus on their higher-paying day jobs. Chris Schmidt served as alder of District 11 from 2009 to 2016, and had served as council President.
Schmidt stepped down after accepting a job at UW Madison. Schmidt says that, had he been able to make a living wage as an alder, it may have changed his career path at the university.
“It was, especially after two years as council president, it was sustainable to both be an alder and have a full time job,” Schmidt says. “My employers at the university had been very understanding and flexible, but even with that it just wasn’t possible to maintain.”
Schmidt adds that he has seen many qualified alders have to leave their city position because their duties as alders did not live up to their compensation, and that the high turnover of alders only hurts the city. This year, four alders have resigned from their role for various reasons.
“Citizens basically demand that their alders be professional, that they have a professional level of experience and knowledge of what they’re doing,” Schmidt says. “It takes a few years to get there. If we aren’t paying people like professionals, we aren’t really going to get that.”
Ultimately, the amendment to the ordinance deciding alder pay did not pass the two-thirds majority needed to pass on a vote of 12 to 7.
Photo courtesy: Brian Standing / WORT Flickr