By KARA PAPPAS
A comparison of council salaries for nine Ohio cities reveals that Youngstown council members not only earn the most but also are among the few who receive health benefits.
A look at council salaries for nine cities with similar population sizes to Youngstown – Canton, Lorain, Hamilton, Parma, Springfield, Elyria, Kettering and Lakewood – revealed annual salaries ranging from $300 to $27,817, with an average salary of $13,866.
The populations in those cities ranged from 52,131 to 81,601, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.
With a population of 66,982, Youngstown council members earn $27,817 — $8,653 more than council members in Parma, which has the second highest salary of the nine cities. Parma has a population of 81,601. Also, Youngstown council members receive a health care benefits package, which includes dental and medical coverage, worth $16,668.
Of the eight council members, only Annie Gillam, D-1st, hasn’t enrolled for health care benefits. Those who have taken the entire health package are Jamael Tito Brown, council president; Paul Drennen, D-5th; L. Nathanial Pinkard, D-3rd; and John R. Swierz, D-7th. Opting for partial coverage are Mike Ray, D-4th, at a cost of $6,612; and Janet Tarpley, D-6th, at $331. T.J. Rodgers, D-2nd, is covered under his wife’s plan. Jasmine Rodgers is a city employee.
In May, the Youngstown Charter Review Commission, which is expected to convene every four years, presented 17 initiatives to the council. These included a salary reduction of about 30 percent for council members and changes in benefits.
The council decided not to put the salary-reduction proposal on the ballot. It did put four initiatives on the ballot: a conflict-of-interest policy, a time period related to daylight-saving time, elimination of mayoral-term limits and language changes on ward redistricting.
As far as Swierz is concerned, the issues of salary and benefit cuts are dead.
“We did not sidestep citizens’ rights with not placing the salary reduction on the ballot,” Swierz said. “If citizens felt that strongly about it, they could have created a referendum to place it on the ballot.”
A referendum would require 1,793 signatures of city residents. The number of signatures must be equal to the 10 percent of city residents who voted in the 2008 presidential election.
At least one group is studying the issue.
“The Neighborhood Leadership Council is looking at various ways to get the charter review’s recommendations on the ballot rather than wait for city council to do something,” said Patricia Dougan, president of the group. “Nothing is set in stone, but we are taking the issues back to the neighborhood groups to see what the people want us to do.”
The charter review commission recommended decreasing council salaries by 30 percent and mandating that members who are eligible for health coverage under a spouse or other job to opt into that coverage.
The commission calculated the salary reduction based on the average wages of a Youngstown resident working a full-time job.
“Council salary will be based on 80 percent of the income of an average resident full time in the city of Youngstown; that number comes out to be about $20,000,” said Phil Kidd, a member of the charter review commission. “That was the recommendation we made.”
Gillam disagreed with the proposal because only council members’ salaries were on the chopping block.
“Why not the mayor?” Gillam asked. “Also, we don’t have a set number of hours we work. Our hours are not continuous; I receive calls at home, and go out to attend banquets within my ward.”
While Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone’s yearly salary of $104,936 was not slated for a reduction, he defends the city council.
“They are worth everything they are being paid,” he said.
Sammarone was a city councilman for 28 years before being elevated to mayor after Jay Williams left the post in August 2011 for a federal job.
Tarpley said the more you pay an individual, the better the quality of work you get from them.
“I probably have the highest crime area in the city, and I am constantly going around night, day and weekends. Being a member of council means you are never off duty. With our economic problems, council members are doing things they wouldn’t normally do, but have to because there is the need for it.”
Still, Youngstown council’s pay and health benefits came as a shock to Canton Councilman Thomas E. West. He doesn’t find a justification for the high salaries.
“Sure there is a decent amount of work involved with being a member of city council, and I’m sure Youngstown has different factors and issues than here in Canton, but it’s mostly a part-time job,” said West.
Canton, which has a population of 73,007, pays its council members $17,843 each year.
Only Drennen voted to place these initiatives on the November ballot.
“Even though I disagreed with a few things the commission proposed, it’s not up to me,” Drennen said. “I have no problem with the community deciding what council salaries are.”
TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaborative effort between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).