SARATOGA SPRINGS — The new charter that city voters will consider in November would axe health insurance benefits for city council members, whose job under the proposal would stay part time but be less involved.
Benefits would remain intact for the mayor, whose job would become full time under the final draft approved by the city’s Charter Review Commission on Monday.
Before approving the draft, charter members voted Monday to amend the proposal to set the mayor’s salary at $40,000 with full health insurance coverage, and to pay council members $14,500 with no health insurance. Previously, the charter proposal had been silent on salaries and benefits, leaving it up to the council elected this fall to set the pay of the council that would be elected in 2019.
Bob Turner, the group’s chairman, said he proposed the change in response to feedback from residents who felt the earlier charter draft gave council members “a blank check.”
“They could get re-elected and then vote to give themselves a big salary right after,” he said. ”We weren’t entirely confident that a future council would do the right thing.”
If the charter referendum passes this fall, the new salaries would take effect Jan. 1, 2020, along with a new form of government: a council-manager system to replace the city’s century-old commission form.
Currently the mayor and the four commissioners — who make up the five-member city council — earn a salary of $14,500 plus health insurance; the benefits cost the city an estimated $18,000 annually per position, but those costs can increase over time, Turner said.
“Someone does a job for 10 years on a part-time basis and now, all the sudden, we have to pay their healthcare for life,” he said. “That’s potentially $600,000 or $700,000 dollars, and that seems excessive.”
The 15-member review group was appointed by Mayor Joanne Yepsen to study the charter last June. Under their proposal, there would be a mayor and six council-members on the council, and a manager to run the operations of the city. The city manager’s salary would be set by the City Council.
The council members would have mostly legislative roles, rather than serving the dual roles of legislators and department heads as they do now. The un-elected positions of four deputy commissioners and a deputy mayor would also be eliminated.
The commission set the proposed salaries based on data from the New York Conference of Mayors, which found the average salary for a mayor in the state to be $50,000. Council members earn $11,139 on average, according to the data.
“Our analysis shows it is very unusual for part-time city council members to receive taxpayer-funded health coverage,” Turner said.
The commission also voted Monday to strengthen the proposed charter’s language on ethics to read: “It is the policy of the City that the activities of City government should be conducted in public to the greatest extent feasible in order to assure public participation and enhance public accountability.”
“Saratogians value transparency in local government,” explained Gordon Boyd, a commission member. “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”