Automatic raises? Elected officials need a reality check

Posted: August 02, 2012

E lected officials are human, too, including members of City Council. They have tuitions, mortgages, car payments and bills like the rest of us. But they have something that most of us don't have: Since 2003, they get automatic annual raises tied to the Consumer Price Index that reflects the rising cost of living. This year, that raise bumps Council salaries by 2.8 percent.

In defending these raises, many members of Council have something else: Lives divorced from reality. If they had a grip on real life, they would know that the COLA is wrong for many reasons.

Most Council members make in excess of $120,000 a year. That means that they make more than 88 percent of city residents. according to 2010 Census figures. Council members make nearly three times the median income for this city. Philadelphia, the largest poor city in the nation, has struggled mightily since the economic meltdown of 2008. To make its budget, it has imposed three tax hikes in as many years. How can an elected official justify a raise?

Some Council members are twisting like a pretzel to justify the raise. For example, a spokesperson for Darrell Clarke says the COLA is "not a raise, but an adjustment." Uh-huh. In our world, if you get more money in salary from one year to the next, it's a raise. Clarke's office also says that this COLA is meant to keep Council and elected officials on par with the "5 percent COLAs in the private sector." Here's the reality of the private sector: COLAs have virtually disappeared over the last few decades. And according to Bloomberg's Wage Trend Indicator, private-sector raises are projected to rise this year a modest 2 percent. Oh, did we mention that 10 percent of Philadelphia is unemployed?

Six Council members aren't taking the raise. Four are undecided, and seven are taking the raise, though some of those say are donating the raise to charity. (For that pretzel twist, they will, of course, reap tax deductions.)

COLAs have no place in the city's current reality. Repeal the law that grants automatic COLAs. Elected officials may have to struggle a bit to make ends meet — and feel what it's like for the people who pay their wages.

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