Should Miami Beach officials get a raise? Voters will decide in August

Miami Beach City Commissioners are asking voters for a raise.
Miami Beach City Commissioners are asking voters for a raise.

Miami Beach’s elected officials haven’t gotten a raise in more than 50 years.

Commissioner salaries were set at $6,000 in 1966 and haven’t changed, although elected officials do get other perks including pensions, a car allowance and a monthly stipend for expenses.

Now, the City Commission is asking voters for a raise. A big one.

In an Aug. 28 special election, voters will be asked whether commissioner salaries should be increased to $45,381, the value of the 1966 salary adjusted for the cost of living. The mayor’s salary, currently $10,000, would go up to $75,636.

Although serving on the commission or as the mayor is technically a part-time job — a full-time city manager oversees day-to-day operations — commissioners are expected to attend numerous meetings and events. That can make it hard for city officials to keep up with their full-time jobs, said Commissioner Michael Góngora, who sponsored the legislation to put the pay raise on the ballot.

“The workload of the commissioner has increased far above and beyond what it has been in the past,” said Góngora, who served two previous terms before getting re-elected in 2017. The number of meetings he must attend has increased since he first joined the commission in 2006, in part because commissioners are appointed to more committees. “All of these things make it impossible for working people to serve on the commission or for people to make a living at their real jobs,” he said.

Boosting salaries could attract a larger pool of candidates, said Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, who left a six-figure job as a technology consultant in order to meet the demands of serving on the commission. Alemán said she was able to leave her job because her husband can support the family on his salary, but that’s not the case for everyone.

“Increasing the salary so that someone could at least pay their mortgage and basic household expenses would open up the talent pool for more residents to be able to participate in our local government,” she said.

But not everyone on the commission agrees.

Commissioners Micky Steinberg and Mark Samuelian voted against putting raises on the August ballot, questioning the timing of the initiative. When the commission voted on the ballot question in June, Miami Beach was looking at cutting raises for City Hall employees in order to balance next year’s budget. The city’s finance department has since come up with additional revenue sources and found a way to balance the budget without eliminating raises.

Mayor Dan Gelber also opposes the raises. “I respect Commissioner Góngora’s efforts to elevate our pay scale but I don’t feel comfortable recommending my own salary increase,” he said. While Gelber acknowledged that a higher salary would likely expand the pool of potential candidates, he said he ran for office knowing that the salary was low. “Public service is a sacrifice,” he said.

Although commissioners don’t take home big paychecks, they do get $2,250 a month for expenses, which they can spend at their discretion, no receipts required. The commission voted to boost the monthly stipend by $750 in February, although Gelber opted out of the increase. The mayor currently gets $2,000 a month.

Góngora said commissioners have a lot of expenses to cover, including the costs of hosting their own websites, sending e-mail blasts to residents and paying for event tickets.

In Miami-Dade County, compensation for elected officials varies drastically from place to place. Some municipalities, including Key Biscayne and Pinecrest, don’t pay their elected officials a salary, while others pay commissioners $30,000 or more, according to a report from the Miami-Dade County Ethics Commission. In Miami, the mayor makes $97,000 and commissioners make $58,200, according to the report.

Miami Beach voters will also be asked about the composition of the city’s Board of Adjustment, a seven-member land use board that evaluates requests for exceptions to city rules relating to construction projects and alcohol sales.

The City Commission is currently required to appoint members who represent specific professions: a lawyer, an architect, an engineer, an accountant, a financial consultant, a businessperson and someone who works in real estate development. Professionals who serve on the Board of Adjustment can’t appear before any of the city’s land use boards, however, a restriction that can make it difficult for the commission to find people willing to take a seat on the board. Architects and engineers risk losing potential clients in Miami Beach if they’re unable to appear before any land use boards. An initiative to remove this restriction for architects was on the ballot in 2016, but failed to pass.

The Aug. 28 ballot question asks voters if two of the board’s members should be “citizens at-large” with no restrictions on profession.

“All this does is it gives a little more flexibility to get those positions filled and make sure we have a fully functioning board,” said Góngora.

Early voting begins Aug. 13.