Council Wants Voter Opinion On Elected Officials’ Salaries

OCEAN CITY – One Ocean City councilman’s suggestion to add a question to the upcoming election ballot asking the voters’ opinion about increasing salaries for the town’s elected officials certainly raised some eyebrows this week, and while the issue will likely merit at least some debate, an informal poll of some of his colleagues indicates there isn’t much sentiment for a pay hike.

At the close of the regular Mayor and Council meeting on Monday, the issue was raised about adding questions to the upcoming October ballot on a variety of issues. Councilman Jim Hall suggested the town’s electorate be asked its opinion on a possible pay increase for the town’s elected officials.

“I think we need to ask the voters,” he said. “It’s not our decision. Ask the voters if they think the pay scale for council members should be raised.”

Hall said he wasn’t particularly interested in a review of the pay structure for himself – Hall has served on the council for 24 years – or even his colleagues. He said he was concerned the comparatively low pay for council members might deter future candidates from considering running for office.

“Almost nobody is going to have the time to run unless there is compensation,” he said. “In the future, I think you’ll see less and less candidates.”

To that end, Hall said he would like the town’s voters to decide if the council should see an increase in pay, perhaps to something closer to the compensation the Worcester County Commissioners receive each year.

“Ask the voters is they think we’re worth any more money,” he said. “Do you think we should set our pay at the same rate as the County Commissioners? We’ve never asked that and I think it’s a fair question.”

Currently, the Ocean City mayor is paid around $30,000 annually, with the council president receiving $11,000 and the other council members receiving $10,000.

By comparison, County Commissioners are paid $25,000 annually. By way of further comparison, the mayor of Berlin is paid $5,000 annually, while the council members receive $2,500. Incidentally, the County Commissioners earlier this year voted down a proposal to increase their salaries.

While they agreed to broach the pay raise ballot question issue at a future work session, Hall’s colleagues on the council, for the most part, were reluctant to embrace the idea this week. Tough economic times and tighter budget constraints have forced the town to cut back many programs and services and freeze employee salaries in the last two years, making the timing of Hall’s ballot question questionable.

“Frankly, I was a little surprised that issue was brought up in light of everything else we’ve been doing with the budget and cutbacks,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to get much traction right now.”

Council President Joe Mitrecic said the issue will get its due on a future work session agenda, but he also didn’t see it going much further.

“It’s not something I have any interest in at all,” he said. “We haven’t given our employees raises in two years, and I don’t think the time is right for this discussion. I’m not sure the time is ever right, but certainly not now.”

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas said if there was a desire to ask the voters what they think of the council’s pay scale, she wouldn’t be averse to seeing a question on the ballot.

“Again, that’s a recurring theme I’ve heard off and on for the last 10 years or so,” she said. “If that’s something he’s interested in asking the taxpayers about, I don’t see why it couldn’t or shouldn’t be a ballot question. I’m not sure that there is any sentiment to consider that, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the question to see what the public thinks.”

Pillas did say at $10,000, the council’s pay is more like $6,000 after taxes, which is not much considering the time most council members devote to the job. For the most part, the Ocean City Mayor and Council meet every week in a regular session and work session rotation. By comparison, the commissioners meet twice a month although like their Ocean City brethren, they typically spend more time on the job than just at the meetings.

“I have to understand 25 different departments in order to make informed decisions,” said Pillas. “It is a lot of work and not much money, but if you enjoy it and have the town’s best interests at heart, you really don’t care about the money.”

Councilwoman Mary Knight was more adamant about shooting down the idea, however.

“This is one issue on which I am very decisive,” she said. “I am not going to vote or even ask for a ballot question to raise my salary by 140 percent,” she said. “There is no way I could vote for that. I don’t think the timing is right to put that on the ballot. Maybe there will be a time down the road to consider that, but certainly not now.”

Like Pillas, Knight said most council members aren’t in it for the money.

“The one thing I think we all have in common is we all love Ocean City,” she said. “I don’t think any of us do this for the money. Maybe Jim [Hall] made a valid point about the compensation deterring people from running, but I’m not sure we want people running based only on the compensation.”