Is it time for Charlotte City Council to change the way it’s paid?

Is it time for Charlotte City Council to change the way it’s paid?
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If you want to examine how much Charlotte taxpayers are spending on their mayor and city council, you have to look well beyond the salary.

Charlotte’s elected officials also receive automatic allowances for expenses, their cars, and technology. They then can have their expenses paid for out-of-town travel and local events, according to data provided by the city.

It all means that Charlotte taxpayers often end up on the hook for political events and fundraising campaigns that our elected officials are invited to.

Nobody is getting rich off the taxpayer’s dime here, and the compensation structure is similar to many other city governments. The mayor’s pay, in particular, is much lower than counterparts in big cities across the country (though the enumerated responsibilities are lower, too).

[Agenda story: Why it makes sense for Charlotte to have a weak mayor making only $44,000 a year]

But in Charlotte, this pay and expense structure leaves expense totals wildly different from council member to council member. That gives Charlotteans an interesting look at the value systems of each city council member and at their attitudes toward spending.

How does the pay break down?

The mayor makes the following:

  • $2,136.27 each month in salary = $25,635 per year
  • $883.33 per month in “expense allowance.”
  • $400 per month in auto allowance. $4,800 per year.
  • $3,100 once annually in technology allowance.

Total: $3,419.60 each month, or $44,135 per year.

Here’s the city council’s pay:

  • $1,650.76 per month in salary = $19,809 per year.
  • $483.33 per month in “expense allowance” = $5,800 per year.
  • $333.34 per month in auto allowance = $4,000 per year.
  • $3,100 once annually for technology.

Total: $2,467.43 each month, or $32,709 per year.

Charlotte taxpayers will provide the mayor and council members a smartphone and an iPad if they request one as part of the technology expense (and most do).

And they also can have expenses paid for out-of-town trips and for local expenses for some reason. Charlotte city council members requested payments of $1,560 for local events.

Our elected officials have wide latitude with these expense payments.

Who spent the most on the taxpayer’s dime?

Click on the names to get a full breakdown of what the mayor and each council member directed city spending for. The expenses cover the most recent fiscal year, which began last summer.

Representing the city?

There are no guidelines for what’s permissible for council members to request expenses for and there is no real mechanism to ask council members to justify where they’re going on the taxpayer’s dime.

A look at the expenses shows a wide range of events over the past year.

A large portion is for out-of-town trips to events hosted by the National League of Cities, including a conference in Washington D.C. Several members also attended Charlotte Chamber’s annual inter-city visit in Dallas, Texas.

But several council members went on trips that toe the line between city business and personal and political interest.

  • LaWana Mayfield spent $372.01 attending the Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in Washington D.C. The Victory Fund is a political group that endorses LGBTQ officials around the country (including Mayfield). She also spent $1,664.22 in city money to attend the group’s national conference in D.C. last December and another $1,772.60 for four days at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Philadelphia.
  • Mayor Jennifer Roberts spent $670.70 to attend the White House Christmas Party.
  • Greg Phipps spent $1,018.33 of city money to attend a Samaritans Feet event in Los Angeles.

Local expenses

Some council members took advantage of the ability to request payment of local expenses in addition to receiving their expense allowance.

A look at their expenses show that Charlotte taxpayers are often indirectly paying into nonprofit fundraising campaigns.

  • Julie Eiselt requested the most local expenses — $499.02. Most of this was for awards banquets like the Charlotte Business Journal, Latin American Chamber of Commerce and Sustain Charlotte.
  • Vi Lyles spent $332.37 locally, including $200 for the UNCF Mayor’s Masked Ball. This is their primary fundraiser.
  • Patsy Kinsey got $250 for a Discovery Place Gala and $75 to participate in the Charlotte Pride parade.
  • LaWana Mayfield spent $228.09 for several fundraisers, including the Jack and Jill Teens’ Unity Lunch and FFTC Foundation Rocks event.
  • Dimple Ajmera requested $203 in local expenses, including to attend the Masjid Ash Shaheed Moral Summit Weekend, a Cesar Chavez Contemplation Breakfast and the Coca Cola 600 VIP Party.
  • Greg Phipps spent $150 for the Charlotte Chamber Economic Outlook Conference.
  • Claire Fallon spent $50 for the Mecklenburg Times Future Charlotte breakfast forum.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts and councilman Al Austin joined the two Republicans — Ed Driggs and Kenny Smith — in not requesting additional expenses for local events.

Should the system change?

That’s the big question. All things considered, Charlotte’s taxpayers aren’t getting fleeced to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But the system does appear to be a way to pay our elected officials more without giving themselves easy-to-understand salary raises.

Interestingly enough, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners used to have a more stringent compensation policy but changed it last year to be more in line with the city. The county used to cap out-of-town travel at $6,500, but that went away.  They also started giving themselves technology and car allowances.

Roberts and most of the council did not respond to questions from the Agenda.

Councilman Kenny Smith, who is running for mayor and came in with the lowest amount of expenses, suggested the city have a tighter policy on out-of-town travel.

“I think we probably have too wide a latitude as to what constitutes city business, and I think we can have a more narrow definition of that,” he said. “I think sometimes individuals may benefit from some trips, but the city may not.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story characterized expenditures on travel and local events as reimbursements. Instead, the city pays directly.

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