Hilton Head Town Council considers giving itself a raise

tbarton@islandpacket.comOctober 6, 2012 

Raises might be in store for the Hilton Head Island Town Council and mayor.

Town manager Steve Riley last week proposed more than doubling the mayor's pay and increasing council members' salaries between 18.5 percent and 65 percent.

Some council members say increases are needed to encourage more people to seek office, particularly young working residents with families who can't afford to sacrifice time away from their jobs to serve.

"This takes an incredibly large amount of time," said 44-year-old Councilman Lee Edwards, who is president and CEO of the island landscaping firm, The Greenery."If we're going to get people who are working and want to get involved, we need to offer a little more reward," Edwards added during a special council meeting Thursday.

Councilman Bill Harkins agreed.

"We really have to think of the future and ask the question: 'Can people without the means reflected around this table offer their time and energy without sacrificing for their family?' " Harkins asked.

Others say now is not the time for raises because the island economy is still recovering from recession.

The council directed town staff to draft an ordinance based on Riley's plan. Riley said he expects to bring the proposed ordinance to the council Oct. 16.



NO CHANCE SINCE '96

Town Council compensation has not changed since 1996, although the cost of living has increased nearly 45 percent. Riley says salaries lag other municipalities in the state with similar forms of government and populations.

A town survey indicates Hilton Head is the state's seventh-largest council-manager government, but salaries for mayor and council members rank 18th and 13th, respectively.

Council members do not receive health or retirement benefits, unlike elected officials in some other municipalities. Council members from 19 of the 23 municipalities surveyed by the town are eligible to participate in the state's retirement system and health plan, and commonly receive town- or city-subsidized benefits, according to the survey.

On average, other elected officials in the state receive about $4,800 a year in town- or city-paid health benefits and $1,000 to $2,000 in retirement contributions, according to the survey.

Hilton Head council members can't participate in the state retirement system because town employees don't. Likewise, council members can't participate in the state health plan.

Riley said the survey is based on information from the Municipal Association of South Carolina. Attempts Friday to reach the association to verify the town's analysis were unsuccessful.



THE PROPOSAL

Riley's proposal would increase the mayor's salary from $10,400 a year to $25,000. Council members' salaries would increase from $7,800 a year to $12,800.

Council members currently receive meeting stipends of as much as $3,000 a year. The mayor receives an extra $500. That would increase to $5,000 a year for the mayor and mayor pro tem and $4,000 for other council members.

With the new stipends, the mayor's total compensation would climb from $13,900 to $30,000. Compensation for council members would increase from $10,800 to between $16,800 and $17,800.

Mayors of the 23 municipalities surveyed receive about $25,000 in total compensation a year on average, including health, dental and retirement benefits. Council members receive about $16,000 a year on average.

The raises would require up to $53,000 a year from the town's $70 million budget. The money probably would come from savings on vacancies in town departments -- savings that otherwise would be used for town operations, finance director Susan Simmons said.

The raises would not take effect until after the election, following adoption of the ordinance, Riley said.

"If it were to take effect before a new council takes office, Town Council would need to adopt it before the Nov. 6 general election," he said.



CANDIDATES REACT

Reaction among candidates running for Town Council in the upcoming general election was mixed.

Hilton Head Guest Services employee Ryan McAvoy, 33, and island golf-apparel merchant Andrew Jablonecki III, 28 -- both of whom are challenging Edwards for the Ward 3 seat -- oppose the increase.Marc Grant, 42, owner of Grant's Mini Mart on Hilton Head, also opposes a raise. He is running against incumbent Bill Ferguson, 64, and attorney Charles Houston, 71, for the Ward 1 seat.

"I do want to encourage younger people to run for office," Grant said. "However, ... I think we should wait for the economy of the island to improve before we consider giving raises to the mayor and Town Council, because residents and businesses are struggling to make a living."

John McCann, 71, who is running against former mayoral candidate Jim Collett Jr., 65, for the Ward 6 council seat, agrees raises are warranted but says now is not the time.

"The economy is in such a bad state now, for the Town Council to give itself raises sets a bad example," McCann said.

Collett disagrees, adding that if he is elected he will donate his salary to local churches and charities.

"I think it's a good idea to keep it in line with other municipalities in the state and to attract someone who is still working," he said.

Houston agrees.

Attempts Friday to reach Ferguson and Jeff Myers, who also is challenging Edwards, were unsuccessful.

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