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The City Council’s pay raise is absurd

By Dennis Safran

It can only be described as obscene that the New York City Council has voted itself a $36,000 pay raise, to nearly $150,000 a year, when the median household income in the city is just under $53,000 and the average cop makes about $60,000. Compounding the obscenity, the overwhelming vote came with exquisitely vile timing less than 24 hours after two police officers who’d gotten 1 percent raises (to $55,000 and $57,000) were shot in a Bronx housing project.

The 32 percent hike is almost twice the 18 percent increase in the regional Consumer Price Index since the last Council pay raise in November 2006. And it’s $10,000 more than the already absurdly generous $26,000 raise, to $138,000, recommended by a legally mandated pay commission.

The Council’s rationale for giving itself even more than the commission proposed? It also voted to bar members from receiving most outside income. But only four of the 51 Council members actually have outside income that would be subject to this ban. And the new restrictions applicable to them will not take effect until the next Council term begins in 2018, while the salary bonanza for them and everyone else is retroactive to Jan. 1 of this year.

Wait a minute. Isn’t that illegal? Isn’t there a prohibition on legislators raising their own pay during their current term in office, so that salary increases can’t take effect until after the next legislative election? For Congress and the state Legislature, yes; it’s not just illegal, it’s unconstitutional. The U.S. Constitution expressly bars senators and House members from trying to pull exactly what the New York City Council just pulled. And even the crooks in Albany are prohibited from trying it under a parallel provision of the state Constitution. But the state constitutional prohibition does not apply to local legislators, and there’s no similar provision in the City Charter barring the Council from voting themselves a 32 percent pay hike that would be illegal for congressmen and state legislators.

You might think that this would be enough chutzpah for the Council members, but you would be wrong. Several were whining that they should have gotten even more! Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, a member of the Council’s “Progressive Caucus” who represents an upper Manhattan district where the median household income is less than $40,000 a year, wailed that “our salaries should be $175,000; we have a right to make a living to support our families.”

It is particularly striking to see this embrace of privilege, entitlement and greed on the part of New York’s famously left-wing Council members, who style themselves as champions of the 99 percent.

I think there’s a cultural explanation for this paradox that goes beyond mere hypocrisy. Even when “progressive” officeholders like Rodriguez represent poor and working class districts, once they are elected their frame of reference becomes the upper status professional elite that dominates liberal Democratic politics. On some level they come to really believe that they should make $150,000 or $175,000.

While these influences are not as strong on the GOP side of the aisle, Republicans can still be subject to them. As a former Republican City Council candidate, I’m happy that the three GOP Council members opposed the bill—but their opposition statement left a lot to be desired. They suggest that they would have voted for the only slightly less obscene $26,000 raise recommended by the pay commission. To his credit, Councilman Eric Ulrich had previously stated that he would vote against any pay raise.

The fact is that we all ran for the job knowing that it paid $112,000, which is already a lot more than the average New Yorker makes. And many of these ordinary New Yorkers work longer hours at far more difficult jobs than City Council members. For those who were elected to then vote themselves a big raise in the middle of their terms, whether $36,000 or $26,000, is repulsive, and the Republican caucus should have said so clearly.

Dennis Saffran,
Republican candidate for City Council from Northeast Queens in 2001 and 2013.

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