Six-figure salaries for San Antonio City Council? Early pay raise talks raise eyebrows among council members

SAN ANTONIO – Some San Antonio council members are resisting the six-figure numbers being thrown around in early discussions about raising their salaries.

Council members’ pay has stayed the same since their salaries were first instituted in 2015: $45,722 for council members and $61,725 for the mayor. Before that, council members got a $20 stipend per meeting.

The current council salaries were based on the median income at the time, and many council members still maintain at least part-time jobs away from city government. Former District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval even cited the pay as one reason she chose to resign her seat early in 2023.

Among other issues, Mayor Ron Nirenberg tasked the Charter Review Commission he assembled last fall with recommending whether to increase council members’ pay to better reflect the cost of living and “lower barriers to participation in city government.”

The commission is comprised of numerous high-profile community members. A subcommittee looked at council compensation in other cities as well as San Antonio council members’ duties. It even talked with former council members, including Sandoval.

A subcommittee of the Charter Review Commission considered council compensation in other cities, as shown in this slide from a Mar. 4, 2024 presentation. (City of San Antonio)

On Monday, the subcommittee presented its preliminary recommendation: choose a group of people on which to base council members’ salaries, then review their pay periodically.

The subcommittee used director-level city employees as an example, a group with a median salary of $192,582.

Even if council members’ salaries were set at a portion of that amount — 39% to 72% in the subcommittee’s example — their pay could more than double.

Based on the pay ranges included in the subcommittee’s example, council members would earn between $75,000 and $125,000, and the mayor’s pay would be between $90,000 and $140,000.

Commission Co-Chair Bonnie Prosser Elder stressed in an interview with KSAT that those numbers were an “example” of how the indexing process might work and were not the actual recommendation.

“They’re still looking at other metrics for indexing, because again, we’re not final,” she said.

The preliminary recommendations on city council salaries from a Charter Review Commission subcommittee, shown in a slide from a Mar. 4, 2024 presentation. (City of San Antonio)

The commission is expected to submit its final recommendations on council pay and other issues in June.

Any changes to the city charter, including council salaries, would still have to be approved by San Antonio voters. But first, the city council would have to decide whether to even put those issues onto the Nov. 5 ballot.

That decision alone would likely come with political blowback, and some council members are already shying away from the idea of raising their pay — at least by the amount presented.

“It should shock the conscience”

KSAT heard from five of the 11 members of the San Antonio City Council on Wednesday, four of whom thought the salary range in the subcommittee’s example was too high.

Coincidentally, all five members serve on the Planning and Community Development Committee, which received a presentation last week on the state of poverty in San Antonio, though not all of them were present for it.

Nearly 252,000 San Antonians — 17.7% of the city — are estimated to be living in poverty, according to that presentation by city staff.

Councilman John Courage (D9), who is running for mayor next year, said he didn’t think the community would support as big a pay bump as what was presented. Instead, the retired teacher said $60,000 to $70,000 for council members “would be in order,” with “maybe an additional 20% on top of that” for the mayor because of the position’s extra duties.

“I’m not trying to say a final number, but I think we need to be sure that whatever we propose as new salary for council and mayor is something that the community believes is reasonable for us as a community, as well,” he said.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who is also mulling a mayoral run, and Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) said the pay should be more in line with what the average resident makes, instead of city executives.

Rocha Garcia said her staff has told her they are already hearing from residents upset with the salary range that had been used as an example.

“The work that we do might be at a director level, and I appreciate that. But I also think that we need to be sensitive to what our residents are making in San Antonio and not be out of line with that,” said Rocha Garcia, who also teaches at Our Lady of the Lake University.

While Rocha Garcia said, “it doesn’t seem sustainable” to be a council member at the current salary level, the Southwest Side councilwoman also thinks “it’s important for people to consider that we should have a second job always, because we shouldn’t be career politicians.”

Castillo, though, thinks a pay increase should come with “ensuring that every city council member is a full-time city council member.”

“As a city councilwoman, I have been full-time, and I believe that should be the expectation for all City of San Antonio residents of their elected official,” she said.

The most vocal opponent of the pay raise discussions was Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), who said “it should shock the conscience.”

Pelaez, a practicing attorney who is widely expected to run for mayor, believes council pay should remain where it is. He also scoffed at the idea that a higher salary would make it easier for people without the same flexibility to serve on the city council.

“There’s plenty of people out there who have run for city council who don’t have lucrative jobs or who are independently wealthy,” he said.

“The days before we even got salaries, we had really solid people working up here. Now that there’s salaries, can anybody really look to the city council and say, ‘Oh, well, because of salaries, we’ve got smarter, more capable people with better ideas,’ right? In fact, we’ve got record numbers of people running for city council.”

Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran (D3) was the outlier of the five council members, seeming to urge an even higher salary range that what was presented.

“City Council pay should increase,” she said in a brief statement emailed by a spokeswoman. “It’s important to understand those elected to serve put in 60 hour work weeks. I believe it should align more closely with the salaries of our county commissioners.”

The four Bexar County commissioners draw an annual salary of $157,500, while the county judge gets $198,920.

Viagran’s spokeswoman said the Southeast Side councilwoman works “very part time” with older adult technology services.

More input

With more than three months before the Charter Review Commission has to hand over its recommendations to the city council, Prosser Elder said the commission “is still in the midst of receiving input from both the commission members and members of the public.”

The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Mar. 21 at the Central Library. It is expected take public comment and get preliminary recommendations on city manager tenure and pay, whether to add more city council districts, and whether redistricting should be handled by an independent committee.

For more information on the commission’s work, you can check out the city’s website.

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