AUGUSTA, Ga. – A new bill from Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta would more than double the base part-time salaries of Augusta commissioners to $25,000 and increase the mayor’s base salary by 58% to $102,500.
Jones said Tuesday that the bill he introduced March 25 was not an end run around the public or the commission, which discussed increasing members’ pay earlier this year behind closed doors.
“The whole purpose of this is to give everybody a starting point,” said Jones, who plans a formal rollout of the proposal next month. “This is something to give persons a basis for talking about if raises are going to be given.”
Jones said higher salaries would attract a higher caliber of candidate, such as professionals with solid incomes who have interest in giving some or all of their time to elective office.
“Based on the size of this city and where we are trying to go as a world-class city and attract cyber, at least you have something that could possibly attract people to say, ‘Yes, this is something I am interested in doing,’” he said. “With the rate it is now, you’ll never get those kinds of folks.”
Augusta Commission members have included lawyers, accountants and other professionals, but they are frequently retirees with military or government retirement income, church pastors and others with sufficient free time they say is needed for the position. Currently, only two or three commissioners have separate full-time jobs.
Integral to the discussion, Jones said, is another controversial detail – that of increasing the responsibility of the Augusta mayor.
Under the city’s “weak mayor” form of government, the mayor has control only over his budget and staff while the bulk of government decision-making lies with the commission, to whom most non-elected department heads report. The commission panned Davis’ proposal earlier this year to create a “blue ribbon” board to discuss the government’s structure and salaries.
“Increasing the mayor’s responsibilities – all those things go into it,” Jones said. “He can still do a blue ribbon panel, and the public can chime in on it.”
Citing advice of the city attorney, the commission claimed earlier this year that a discussion about raising salary amounts was a “personnel” matter exempt from public discussion. Georgia Press Association attorney David Hudson disagreed.
“When talking about how much to pay themselves, there is no evaluation of whether they are competent commissioners deserving of a raise – they are discussing a budgetary matter applicable to them all as a group,” Hudson said.
Jones said he did an analysis of county commissioner salaries from around the state to recommend the salary amounts. He said he placed the mayor’s salary in the middle of Augusta department head salaries.
The mayor and commission already receive up to 35% more than their base salaries as well as other perks. To the base salary amounts are added state cost-of-living adjustments, which carry over between officeholders, and supplements for completing state-sanctioned training for elected officials.
In the last report obtained by The Chronicle, commissioners garnered between $15,300 and $17,300 a year, while the mayor makes $84,983. The commission receives an additional $500 monthly travel stipend, insurance and other benefits, while the mayor drives a city SUV, has a staff of three and a $500,000 annual budget for salaries and other expenses.
Elections for mayor and five commission seats will be held next summer. Jones said he expects the coming discussion to establish new salary amounts before candidate qualification begins in March.