Top S.F. officials’ raises shouldn’t be on autopilot 

At a time when our mayor is asking government employees to tighten their belts because of San Francisco’s still-shaky government finances, it is understandably controversial that four elected officials stand to receive automatic raises totaling slightly more than $33,000 per year.

Under current law, the wages of San Francisco’s seven top officials undergo a mandated readjustment every five years. This increase — there can be no decrease — is tied to the wages of similar officials in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The timing of these pay raises has raised some political ire among unionized San Francisco government workers who are being asked by Mayor Ed Lee’s administration for wage cuts or increased contributions to their health care. But it should be noted that these pay increases are not the work of the officials in question — although they certainly could decline to accept their raises, as ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom did in 2007.

It also needs to be pointed out who approved this compensation regime. It was you.

In 2006, before the economic bust, some of us may not have had financial prudence at the forefront of our minds. At that time, the pay levels of these seven officials were frozen at 1994 levels, with cost-of-living increases approved at the discretion of the Civil Service Commission. So voters were asked to bring the officials’ pay scale up to the regional norm.

That legislation’s premise certainly made sense — that our elected officials should be paid commensurate with their counterparts in nearby counties. But history has shown us that such mandated raises are unwise.

Until recently, for instance, Muni drivers benefited from a similar voter-approved scheme that ensured they were the second-highest-paid transit operators in the U.S. Yet voters eventually realized granting automatic pay raises without regard for Muni’s budget situation or operational efficiency made no sense whatsoever, and they eliminated that mandate in 2010.

Tying local officials’ pay to that of neighboring counties also is unwise because San Francisco is both a city and a county. That makes some positions very different from those in neighboring counties. Take Lee, for instance. The title of mayor sets up comparisons to the heads of other cities. Viewed that way, Lee appears to make substantially more than any big-city mayor in California. But this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Lee is the head of the executive branch of both the city and the county of San Francisco. So it makes sense that his salary also is compared to that of other county administrators, who tend to make far more than elected mayors.

It is time to rethink the raise system. Automatic pay raises do not give San Francisco the economic or political flexibility it needs to manage its budget through periods when there is insufficient money for salary increases. And the unique dual structure of San Francisco’s government makes it difficult to evaluate the pay of elected officials based on comparisons with nearby counties.

With Lee wisely calling for budgetary restraint, this is not the time for San Francisco’s top elected officials to be receiving pay raises. Perhaps the mayor can recommend a modification of this compensation scheme as part of his broader budget policy.

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