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Editorial: Some options for trimming Lodi City Council costs

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Posted: Saturday, March 8, 2014 12:00 am

Is compensation for the Lodi City Council outrageous? No. Should it be trimmed? Absolutely.

Our recent series on council pay and compensation by reporter Katie Nelson was an eye-opener. We’re sure many citizens and taxpayers were not aware that the costs associated with the council have risen steadily over the years, driven in large measure by the soaring costs of health insurance.

Tally up the stipends, pension contributions and various insurance coverages, and the amount is substantial: $128,000 in 2012.

Nelson’s work also showed some council members travel regularly out of town, mainly to conferences. Those costs are, with a few exceptions, borne by the taxpayers. Moreover, no one approves those travel expenses; council members are pretty much free to go where they wish, with no oversight.

Council costs have crept upward across California, not just in Lodi. Yet they aren’t often or easily revealed — or explained

We should stop here and acknowledge that city officials were quite responsive to our requests for financial data.

Deciphering the information, though, proved quite a challenge.

One payment of $5,908 to Councilman Alan Nakanishi, for example, was especially difficult to unravel. It had apparently been reported to us in error and efforts to explain it were never entirely clear.

This is an area that needs more sunshine, and more simplicity.

It is also an area where some nipping and tucking is overdue. Our suggestions:

  • Let’s keep the stipend of $860 per month per council member. That’s reasonable and reflects limits imposed by state law based on a city’s population. We know and appreciate that some council members put in many hours each week, and for them council duty may rival a full-time job. Traditionally, and for most members, though, serving on the council has been a part-time position. The stipend, and little more, should suffice.
  • Drop pension eligibility for council members. As far as we could determine, only one council member is drawing a pension based on her service, and it is modest. But the contributions of roughly $2,000 to CalPERS per year per eligible council member by the city add up over time. Should council service, driven by a sense of laudable civic spirit, really equal a pension? We’re among those who don’t believe so.
  • A major driver of council costs is health insurance. These costs are both variable and substantial. If we as a city continue to pay them to the council, we agree with Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce: Coverage should be limited to the council member individually and not family members. That limits the city’s exposure and provides a rough equity of compensation.
  • Under city policy, council members are each allotted a travel budget of $2,900 per year. There are no real checks and balances on this travel, and there should be.

Who would review and approve these expenses? That’s admittedly a challenge. It is unfair to ask a council appointee to cast a critical eye on the spending of, in effect, a boss.

So why not let the council’s true bosses, the taxpayers, take a look at this spending? Why not post all council travel expense reports online and include at least of summary of them in council agendas?

As our reporting showed, the cost of council is substantial. As city leaders, especially during times that remain economically challenging, council members have the opportunity — if not the obligation — to set a financially responsible example.

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