The battle over raising the salaries for the Princeton Council and mayor heated up last week at the governing body’s public meeting, where some officials expressed shock that others would not support the increases.
Councilman Patrick Simon, who served on the Princeton Consolidation Commission and the finance committee for the Princeton Transition Task Force, said he does not undervalue the work of his colleagues on the council. He stands by keeping the pay level flat for elected officials, however, because the salary recommendations approved by both governing bodies before consolidation and presented to the voters called for the lower Princeton Borough pay rate for governing body members.
“Representations were made to the public that we supported the recommendations of the commission, including the current salary level,” Simon said. “I don’t think anything should be done to undermine our responsibility to our constituents.”
Simon also said the raises for elected officials are disproportionate when compared with the 1.5 percent salary increase town staff members are receiving for 2014.
“In contrast, the proposed pay increases for elected officials are 17 percent for the mayor, 66 percent for the council president, and 33 percent for the other members of council,” Simon said.
Councilman Lance Liverman read from a prepared statement and said he felt belittled and attacked by colleagues who opposed the raises.
“I agreed to back off last year on the salary increases because I thought we were going to revisit it this year,” Liverman said. “Days and days were spent harmonizing the salaries of employees upwards. Mr. Miller and I were the only ones whose salaries were cut because of consolidation.”
Liverman claimed that the $2,500 salary increase for council members that would bring the salary to $10,000 a year would be an incentive for lower income people to run for council.
“Many good and decent residents may want to serve on council, but the cost of serving is not within their means,” he said. “If the salary is increased, they may consider running. We should not sit up here because some of us are blessed financially.”
Liverman claimed he works 2o hours a week as an elected official, and that his pay would come out to $6.80 an hour if all the time he puts in each year is added up.
But Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said officials, including Liverman, did not object to the salary rates back when promises were made regarding consolidation.
“I sat in the finance meetings, and no one said anything at the time,” Crumiller said. “No one made any passionate arguments at the time. Personally I would feel like a weasel if I think about what I promised and support changes now.”
“We did make a promise, but not one that binds us into infinity,” Councilwoman Heather Howard said. “We are not bound by everything.”
Crumiller said she would support an increase that is commensurate with the salary increase for town staff members. Council President Bernie Miller objected to that suggestion.
“We are talking about a $59 million budget. This is not one one-hundredth of the budget, not even one one-thousandth,” Miller said. “An attempt is being made to politicize the issue and it has resulted in language that is entirely inappropriate.”
“Someone said if you don’t agree with pay scale you should not run,” Miller said. “I don’t appreciate someone saying what my criteria should be for running for office. And I don’t like the word weaseling when someone talks about changing…What I really resent is putting aside any debate or any discussion by trying to control a line item budget in such a manner when the issue comes before council, with no possibility of having a discussion. If the money is not in the budget, we can’t discuss it. What has gone on is undemocratic.”
Councilwoman Jo Butler countered that the raise issue is neither personal nor political. “We are not several years out from consolidation,” Butler said. “We have not found all the savings we had hoped for yet. These salaries were quite specific in the consolidation report.”
Butler, who supported consolidation and served on several Transition Task Force committees, said last year she worked to facilitate a debate on the issue, but then the raises were pulled without further discussion.
“This is a principled stand,” Butler said. “We need to deliver on our promises. We have tried hard to adhere to most of the recommendations of the consolidation commission and transition task force. If we’ve varied, it has been on issues that are few and far between, and with good reason.”
Crumiller said she thinks council members should be able to have heated discussions without people taking things personally.
“I completely agree with Ms. Crumiller and Ms. Butler that we can disagree and it doesn’t mean it is personal, however we can disagree and also have it be personal,” Mayor Liz Lempert said. “Arguments calling someone a weasel or saying they lack integrity are language by which disagreeing makes it feel personal.”
Lempert, who voted along with Miler, Liverman and Howard the previous council meeting to add the salary increases to the budget via an amendment, said the council pay has not been increased for many years and it should not be tied to staff salary increases.
Simon said he would not back down on the issue though.
“The problem is at this point that we made representations to the public, and frankly, we set relative expectations of staff,” he said. “One of the comments I received from another council member was `you aren’t backing me on this.’ That is not a fair request. You are asking me to back you as an individual over promises I made to constituents and representations we made to the staff.”
Lempert said the budget is $59 million plus change.
“We’ve spent 45 minutes on a $19,000 line item,” she said. “This is a politically loaded issue and I don’t want us to miss the forest through the trees.”
Simon said the issue is important because it is the only item where elected officials stand to personally gain from something.
“I disagree that just because it is a small amount of money we shouldn’t spend time on it,” he said.
The council approved the budget by a vote of 4-2. Butler and Simon voted against it because of the raises. Crumiller opposed the raises but said she did not want to see the budget process held up.
The salary line item for elected officials in the approved budget grew from $60,000 to $79,750. That total is enough to raise each council member’s salary from $7,500 to $10,000, make the council president’s salary $12,250 and increase Lempert’s salary from $15,000 to $17,500.