The Canton City Council conducted a public hearing and heard the first reading on Thursday of a proposal to increase council member and mayor compensation.
The measure would increase annual council pay from $2,100 to $15,000, a 614-percent increase, and the mayor's yearly salary from $3,000 to $21,600, a 620-percent increase.
The raises, which are the first for the council in 16 years, would go into effect on Jan. 1 if approved at a special called meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29, at Canton City Hall.
Earlier this year, the city was facing a $1 million-plus budget shortfall, which resulted in 20 employees being laid off in January. The council also recently voted to raise taxes by increasing the millage rate from 5.95 mills to 6.8 mills, meaning the average homeowner saw a $64 increase on his tax bill.
Mayor Gene Hobgood said he has "mixed feelings" about the raises, which were proposed by Councilwoman Pat Tanner based on a study she said shows the salaries are "substantially below" a majority of cities in a 75-mile radius.
Though Hobgood said a raise could be justified, he felt the timing was bad. As mayor, Hobgood estimates he puts in between 25 and 30 hours a week.
Councilman Lester Cantrell said he opposes the level of salaries presented at Thursday's meeting, and favors a scaled-down raise instead.
He is suggesting a more modest raise to $6,000 annually for council members and $8,400 for the mayor.
"We've had this financial crisis. We have laid people off. I know we need to adjust it, but this is just too much right now," said Cantrell, whose term ends on Dec. 31 and who is not seeking re-election.
Councilman Bill Bryan, who is up for re-election, said he plans to vote against the pay raise as presented Thursday.
Councilwoman Amelia Rose said she will make her decision the day of the vote, adding she thinks a raise is justified.
"It is an honor and a privilege to serve on the council, but there is a lot of time involved," she said, adding she thinks the city government's finances are improving.
Councilwoman JoEllen Wilson, whose term ends on Dec. 31 and is not seeking re-election, declined to comment as she won't receive the raise.
Ms. Tanner and Councilman Jack Goodwin did not return repeated calls for comment.
The amount of the raises was not included in agenda packets provided to media in advance of the meeting. City Clerk Diana Threewitt said a copy of the amended code with the amount of the raises was available at Canton City Hall for public review.
Questions also have been raised by candidates running for the council as well as residents about the amount of the raises and whether they legally can be increased at this time.
The Georgia state code, in the portion about increasing elected officials' compensation, states such action cannot take place between when candidates qualify for office and the election. Qualifying for the Canton municipal elections was from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, and the election is on Nov. 3.
City Attorney Billy Hasty said he interprets the section to mean the city must take action to increase salaries before the election is held.
Candidates who spoke during Thursday's public hearing were split on the raise issue.
Ward 1 candidate Dr. Austin Flint is seeking Mrs. Wilson's post and faces opponent Bob Rush.
Flint spoke against the raise, saying he was "surprised" the issue was coming up now.
"A lot of people in this town are struggling," he said about the economic times. Flint has said he won't take a salary if elected to the council. Rush did not speak at the hearing.
Ward 3 candidate John Beresford is seeking Cantrell's post and faces opponent Amy Turcotte.
Beresford spoke in favor of pay raises, saying the council deserved more money for the work they do. Ms. Turcotte did not speak at the hearing.
Canton resident Pat Gold also spoke in favor of the raises, noting she sees the work and the stress elected officials undertake.
"I'm surprised anyone would object," she said of the increase.
Ward 2 candidate Bill Staab, who is challenging Bryan, opposes the raises and questioned whether the council pension plan would be affected by the deal.
Canton council members and the mayor receive a pension - a rare benefit for such officials and one not granted to other municipal elected officials in the county. This measure was approved about seven years ago in lieu of a salary increase.
The mayor and council members in Canton, once they step down from office, receive $64 a month per year of service - meaning an official who served four years, would receive $256 a month or $3,072 a year. The pension is available at 50 percent of the total value when a former official is 55, and at 100 percent when a former official is 65. Officials must serve at least four years to be eligible.
Currently, the city is paying pensions to former mayor Cecil Pruett, who served 12 years; and council members Wade Buchanan, 16 years; and Wally Fowler, 16 years. Pensions for just these three former officials add up to $33,792 using the city's formula.
In addition to the salary and pension, council members and the mayor also receive health, dental and life insur-ance coverage from the city government. And they are reimbursed from city coffers for all out-of-pocket expenses such as costs incurred traveling to Georgia Municipal Association events.
While Ms. Tanner said a study of cities within a 75-mile radius showed Canton's salaries as "substantially below" par, a study by the Tribune on Friday did not find the same conclusion.
The Tribune compared Canton salaries to those of all other municipalities in Cherokee County as well as those with similar size populations statewide. Canton's population as of July 2008, according to the United States Census, was 22,724.
According to this study, the proposed annual salaries for Canton are higher than all of the cities in Cherokee - including Woodstock, which has a larger population.
In Woodstock, where the population is 23,141, council members are paid $9,000 and the mayor $12,000.
Holly Springs, with a population of 8,818, pays its mayor and council members $3,900. Ball Ground, whose population is 953, pays its council $25 per meeting with a $50 monthly cap. The mayor gets $3,600. Waleska, with a population of 889, pays its council $2,400 and its mayor $4,800. Nelson, which has a population of 928, does not provide compensation for its council and mayor.
The suggested raises also would put Canton officials at making more money than their counterparts in the similar size cities of Acworth, Carrollton, Forest Park, Griffin, Snellville and Thomasville.
In Acworth, where the population is 19,476, council members are paid $13,200 and the mayor $20,400. Carrollton, with a population of 23,291, pays its council $3,600 and its mayor $6,000. Forest Park council members are paid $12,000 and the mayor $19,200 to lead the city of 21,726 residents.
Thomasville, where the population is 19,286, pays its council members $7,800 and its mayor $9,000. Griffin, with a population of 23,719, pays its council $13,440 and its mayor $15,396. Snellville's compensation for its leaders of the 20,112-resident city is $4,000 for the council and $6,000 for the mayor.
Exact salaries for the remaining two cities in Georgia with similar populations - College Park and McDonough - were not available as of press time. However, according to the McDonough city budget, the six-member city council and mayor there are paid a total of $90,000 a year, which if split evenly, amounts to individual salaries of $12,857.
Also in comparison, Cherokee County, with a population of 210,529, pays its county commissioners $30,000 a year and the commission chairman $38,000. The annual salary for members of the county's school board is $7,200.