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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
NOT SORRY: Mike Rotkin says that when it comes to running a city, you get what you pay for.

Pay Grades

Santa Cruz Council paid more than most, less than some

By Curtis Cartier

IT'S BEEN reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel that the seven members of the Santa Cruz City Council are paid roughly double the salaries of their counterparts in Scotts Valley, Capitola and Watsonville. But what about cities with bigger budgets or fewer services? Turns out, Santa Cruz's council salaries are still pretty high—but they're not the highest.

Santa Cruz City Council members work part-time, usually 20 to 30 hours per week during nonemergencies, and make $1,396 per month, which is down from $1,551 per month since early this year when the council, along with all other city employees, took a 10 percent pay cut. The city's total annual budget for 2009–2010 is $178 million and includes operating outsourced services like garbage and recycling pickup. Though their pay is indeed higher than other city councils in the county, it can easily be argued that Capitola, Scotts Valley and Watsonville's respective budgets of $19 million, $20 million and $93 million give their councils—simply put—less to do. Outside the county, however, Santa Cruz councilmembers enjoy two to three times the salaries they would in Monterey and Palo Alto, where councilmembers make $430 per month and $553 per month and oversee budgets of $101 million and $499 million, respectively. Santa Cruz Mayor Mike Rotkin, who has served on the council on-and-off for 30 years, defends his pay, saying that when it comes to local government, you get what you pay for.

"When I started on the council in '79, we got 50 bucks a month. But I think a community has to decide whether they want to have a council comprised entirely of older rich people who don't have to work, or if they want a diverse group of people that are still working and are more reflective of the community," says Rotkin. "We're able to be much more accessible to the people that voted for us if we don't have to work full-time at another job to make a living. I feel very comfortable being paid what I am."

On Nov. 24, the Santa Cruz City Council voted to allow its members to take a 10 percent pay increase, though they simultaneously deferred taking the raise until the city was deemed to be out of its current financial pit. Even once they enact the pay raise, however, the council will still be paid significantly less than some other nearby city councils, where members work full-time. In Berkeley, for example, a city famous for setting precedents in policy, councilmembers make $2,436 per month, and in Santa Barbara it's $3,285. Both cities oversee budgets in excess of $240 million; Berkeley's is $320 million. Members of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors take home $9,310 per month for keeping track of a $612 million budget.

Santa Cruz City Manager Richard Wilson says that his job running the city is made much easier when the membership of the city council is competitive and diverse. He says paying a decent wage can be a great way to do that.

"In reality, a city councilmember is an extremely busy position, and they often put in a ton of hours," says Wilson. "In the best of all worlds you have strong elected officials and a strong staff. The pay, I think, emphasizes the responsibility of discharging their duties responsibly. We're a big complex place that takes a lot of skill to oversee."

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