Salaries for Bluffton Town Council members will nearly double Jan. 1, when they receive a pay hike that will put Mayor Lisa Sulka's annual pay on par with counterparts in cities such as Summerville and Anderson.
Several council members say the hike is overdue. However, one former councilman seeking to regain a seat in November's election says the increase is unfair, given that town staff hasn't had an across-the-board pay raise since 2011.
"To do this in this economy, to slap employees with a raise, isn't right," said Charlie Wetmore, one of seven candidates for one of two at-large seats on Town Council in the Nov. 5 election. "It's a public-servant job. You're not supposed to be making money on it."
Town Council voted in June to increase its annual compensation, for a total additional cost of $22,430, as part of the town's 2014 budget, according to town documents.
The increase raises each council member's salary from $6,000 to $10,000 per year, and boosts Sulka's annual salary from $8,000 to $15,000, according to town manager Anthony Barrett and the Municipal Association of South Carolina's 2013 compensation survey.
Some council members this week said the raises will make their pay comparable to council members' pay in other S.C. municipalities. They also said they deserved raises because of the amount of time they spend working on town business.
"Since the last time (council's) pay went up, the population has increased tremendously," Sulka said. "It is more time. Believe me, the bucks aren't big at any point."
"My guess is, if we put this up for voter referendum, people would most likely give us a raise far greater than we would give ourselves," Councilman Mike Raymond said.
NO CHANGE SINCE '09
Town Council compensation has not changed since 2009, when council members granted themselves a $2,400 across-the-board raise, Barrett said.
Since then, council salaries have not kept pace with other municipalities, Sulka said.
The new salaries will put council's pay closest to Rock Hill, Conway and Anderson, according to the municipal association's survey. The mayor's new salary will closely match counterparts in Easley, Summerville and Anderson, the survey shows.
But Bluffton council members say those numbers are misleading.
Many other municipalities, such as Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County, offer stipends to council members for attending committee meetings or serving on commissions. Bluffton does not.
"Stipends are paid to a lot of counties and other municipalities, so they've got other outlets for compensation," Councilman Ted Huffman said. "Trust me, it's a pittance. It helps. It's nothing to turn your nose up at."
Hilton Head Island Town Council members receive as much as $4,000 a year in stipends. The mayor can pick up as much as $5,000, according to a town proposal approved last year.
Bluffton Town Council does, however, are reimbursed 50.5 cents per mile when traveling on town business, including travel to and from meetings.
Barrett said in an email that council members rarely seek reimbursement, except when traveling to the annual Municipal Association meeting in Columbia.
The council based its raise on Barrett's analysis of salaries of municipalities with populations between 10,000 and 20,000 people, the town manager said.
At a June 3 budget workshop open to the public, council discussed the proposed raises, an item in the town's annual budget, according to town clerk Sandra Lunceford.
Later that month, council unanimously approved the budget, including the raises, at an open meeting.
"I don't feel we've been secretive in any way," Sulka said. "We went line line-by-line at that workshop. And workshops are pretty well attended when it comes to the budget."
No member of the public spoke at the hearing, Barrett said.
Not included in this year's budget was an across-the-board increase, or cost-of-living raise, for town staff.
The last such raise was in 2011, when council granted a 2 percent increase for anyone making less than $53,000, Barrett said.
Instead, the current council has preferred to reward staff through merit raises and performance bonuses, Barrett said.
"Our rationale is, 'Why should somebody who is just doing their job get the same amount of money as somebody who is going above and beyond in their job?'" Councilwoman Karen Lavery said.
Barrett did not immediately respond to an email Thursday asking how many employees have received such raises. He did say in an email Wednesday that the town "will be looking at compensation for all employees during this fiscal year."
Wetmore, the council candidate, challenged current members at their meeting this week.
"The economy is still bad, and council sees fit to increase salary during a year when there's a 1.75-mill tax hike," he said.
If he is elected to council, Wetmore said, he would make a motion to cancel the salary hike effective immediately.
If that fails, Wetmore said, "I won't keep the $4,000 for myself. I'll give it to charity or something else."
Other candidates for two open seats on council said they were not thrilled by the salary increase but understood the effort it takes to be an efficient council member.
"A tax hike and a raise at the same time is not something you probably want to do," said Larry Toomer, a candidate who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2005. "But it's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a ton of work that goes into it. ... People have to pay for baby-sitters and leave work early."
Fred Hamilton, a candidate and former council member who lost a re-election bid in 2011, said he did not know about the raise until after he filed to run in the election, but thought it could motivate a wider variety of people to run for council.
Attempts to reach challengers Garfield Moss and Gary Bensch, and incumbent Oliver Brown were unsuccessful.
Raymond, an incumbent also facing re-election, agreed with Hamilton that a raise could inspire more candidates to run.
"I just thought it was time to do it," he said. "There's no guarantee that I will be re-elected. I may not see a nickel of this. But I would not begrudge the next person for taking it."
A raise voted in by a sitting council can only take effect after a new council is sworn in following an election, according to state law.
Sulka said in the end, she had no qualms about the pay increase.
"I think there is a balance where you feel that I'm working really hard for my town and giving up my private life and career," Sulka said. "Those that have a true concern about it, if they win, then don't take it. If it's that disconcerting, take a stand and don't take it."
Data: SC municipal salaries
Data from the state Municipal Compensation Survey conducted by the Municipal Association of South Carolina. All results are from the 2013 survey.
This table shows compensation reported for mayors and council members in SC towns with 10,000 to 20,000 in population.
To explore more municipal salary data, including salary amounts and ranges from all SC towns and cities and many more job titles, click here.
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.