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  • Writer's pictureJosh

Proposed Raises for the Honolulu Council Are Offensive

This was previously published in Civil Beat.

In April, the Honolulu Salary Commission voted to approve salary increases for county government workers. This includes the Mayor and Council Members.

While most workers are poised to receive relatively modest raises, the Council could receive massive raises. Currently, Council Members are paid approximately $70,000 a year. The proposal from the Commission would raise that to roughly $113,000. That’s a 64% increase.

Why a Reasonable Raise is Needed

The 12.5% increase for the Mayor and department heads isn’t, for me, unreasonable. It’s been four years since the Commission recommended raises for top city officials.

For years, at both the State and County levels, agencies have had a hard time filling needed positions because the salary levels cannot compete with the private sector. This includes top-level officials.

While a cynic like me might say this is what’s intended by the respective legislative bodies who have an inclination toward neoliberal policies and a general distaste for government in deference to a profit-seeking private sector.

Raising the salary ranges for department heads is key to limiting a revolving door in these critical positions.

Add to this the fact that the department heads and others, excluding the Council, work full-time in their roles. Despite what Chair Waters and others claim, the work done by the Council on a daily basis is performed by the full-time Council staff. Not the members themselves.

Though the Council meets and does its work year-round, you can look at its meetings calendar to get a sense of just how part-time their positions are.

Yes, the members have other responsibilities, meetings, events, etc. in which they are required to participate, but the job is by no means “full-time.”

A 64% Raise is Grossly Offensive

I like and support Tommy Waters generally, but his public statements about how hard council members work for the current $70,000 salary are disappointing and offensive to me.

His complaint about how hard he works for his two-job, six-figure salary while there are people who are also working two or three jobs just to scratch by seems grossly tone-deaf. Plus, I find it highly unlikely that those members who hold a second job (whatever it may be) will give up that job when their Council salaries are increased. In reality, it will mean they’ll make even more money every year while constituents see no increase in responsiveness or effectiveness from their Council members.

Today, someone working minimum wage full-time as an “essential worker” makes about $25,000 a year. That’s nearly $14,000 less than what’s needed for an individual in Hawaii to survive, according to DBEDT’s 2021 Self-Sufficiency Report.

By the way, that report is calculated based on 2020 data. Given the last few years and the inflation spike, it’s almost certainly higher now.

It should also be noted that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median income on Oahu is approximately $92,000. State-wide, that figure is just over $83,000.

While the work the Council does is undeniably important, I don’t believe its members necessarily deserve more than any other hard-working individual in Hawaii. Certainly not, so long as it’s considered a part-time job. Certainly not when at least some of the members have additional sources of income.

A “Voter Revolt”?

Hawaii News Now reported:

Supporters of the raises said the Honolulu Charter required them to set the salaries based on the workload and what other city executives earned. They added the higher salaries would help attract high-quality people into public service.

However, in a separate HNN story, Chair Waters expressed concern about bringing the issue to a vote:

But Waters is concerned that if forced to vote, those who vote to give themselves a raise risk a voter revolt.
“I think that’s why you had frozen salaries in 19 out of the last 33 years,” Waters said.
“Because people are elected. And they’re afraid that if they accept a Salary Commission’s recommendation that they may not get elected again.”

There’s a strange dichotomy here.

On the one hand, supporters claim raising salaries would encourage more people to run for the Council. On the other hand, Waters is concerned that a vote put members at risk of a “voter revolt.” You simply can’t have it both ways. Either increased competition for Council seats is good, or it isn’t.

Ultimately, I don’t believe there is any justifiable reason the Honolulu Council should receive a 64% raise. At best, an argument could be made for a 33% raise would at least bring them in line with the island median income. But even that, to me, seems terribly excessive.

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