Portland's city commissioners made a controversial decision last week to award themselves a 2.8 percent "cost-of-living allowance," otherwise known as a pay raise.
The so-called COLA, effective July 1, was awarded citywide to all union employees earlier this year as part of previously negotiated labor contracts. However, last week's raise was intended to prevent 25 percent of the city's 6,149 employees who do not belong to a union from losing ground due to inflation. The earlier total cost to award the raise to union employees was $9.5 million, while the cost of last week's non-union increase was $3.7 million.
I'm not one to bash the unions, and I can see the fairness in awarding the increase across the board. But I am surprised City Commissioners Randy Leonard and Dan Saltzman (who are currently paid the annual commissioner's salary of $99,507 each) chose to ignore the COLA's opt-out clause for elected officials, after having cut 112 city jobs in last week's budget.
It just looks bad. Worse still, Leonard and Saltzman did not respond to requests for comment on this column by press time. Their chiefs of staff, Ty Kovatch and Brendan Finn (salaries of $100,505 and $89,980 respectively, and going up), also declined comment, though to be fair, they wouldn't have been able to opt out, as they're not elected officials.
Fortunately there are those on city council with a better sense of tone in the midst of a recession. City Commissioner Nick Fish says he didn't think it was appropriate to take the COLA as an elected official "when I am cutting budgets and laying off employees." City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she chose not to take the raise "because I am constantly looking for ways to save taxpayers' money." But neither Fritz nor Fish would comment on their fellow commissioners' decisions.
Meanwhile Mayor Sam Adams (salary: $118,144) told me on his bike outside the Portland Development Commission on Monday, June 1, that refusing the raise is a symbolic gesture.
"I think the mayor of this city should share in some of the economic hardship we're all experiencing," he said. So what does Adams think of Leonard and Saltzman taking the cash? "I think there are many valid perspectives on this issue," he said. "It's a question of judgment." Does that mean he thinks Leonard and Saltzman's judgment is bad? "I've got to go," he said with a smile, before riding off to a meeting.
I'll take that as a "yes," mayor. Thanks. And you're absolutely right.