The Baltimore City Council approved a bill Monday night that would raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
With Baltimore City's population continuing to evaporate and its never-ending annual budget cliffhangers, it is reasonable for voters to re-evaluate the arbitrary size of the 15-member City Council. In November 2018, voters may get an opportunity to reduce it to an 11-member body if 10,000 city voters sign the petition for the issue to be voted on in the general election. This plan would retain the single at-large City Council president and reduce the number of part-time members from 14 to 10.
This plan may place pressure on the large and expensive City Council to show voters that its current structure is needed and that it can generate fresh ideas and pass bills that reduce the high crime rate, slash the burdensome property tax rate and help reform the mismanaged public school system.
The annual pay for the council president is $113,000, and the remaining part-time members each earn $66,000, with the exception of the vice-president, who earns $73,000. That's a total of $1,044,000 — and that high amount does not include salaries for the council members' staffs.
Maryland's growing counties offer examples of governing with fewer council members when considering population numbers. Anne Arundel County has seven part-time members who govern 550,000 people; Baltimore County has seven part-time to govern 820,000; Montgomery County has nine full-time to govern over 1 million; and Prince George's County has nine full-time to govern 900,000. With these numbers, it is easy to see that the city's governing body of a council president and 14 part-time council members is unusually high for a city with a population of only 614,000.
In 2002, a vast majority of City Council members balked at reducing their size and lectured and blamed others for budget shortfalls and population declines, so groups and regular citizens gathered more than 10,000 signatures from courageous Baltimore City voters, which forced the question of whether voters wanted to restructure the City Council. In the November 2002 general election, Question P passed by 68 percent, and it reduced the number from 19 to 15, with the council president position continuing. At that time, part-time council members' annual salary was $48,000; since then, council members' salaries have increased around 40 percent — about $4,000 more per member than if solely adjusted for inflation. With the increased cost of council members' salaries, voters should have an opportunity to re-evaluate the size of the City Council.
If the City Council is reduced, Baltimore would save at least a quarter of a million dollars annually and halt future salary increases for eliminated positions. That may seem like a small figure compared to the city's overall budget of more than $2 billion, but as we've seen, every little bit counts. A few months ago, the city struggled to find $100,000 for bus passes for school children who use public transposition to participate in after-school activities. If there were four fewer council members, this struggle may not have occurred.
The city has high crime, poverty, and drug addiction rates. It is nonsense, however, to believe that an oversized City Council is the answer to these problems, because these problems have been present for years. If problems controlled the number in a governing body, the City Council, the Maryland legislature, and the United States Congress would have many more people in their respective bodies.
Although City Council members, many new, do work more than part-time each week on city issues, it should not be lost that they voluntarily chose public service, and public service comes with many responsibilities, including being asked to work a little more than part time.
Voters should have the opportunity to seek governing improvement at the ballot box, rather than continue to accept the same problems under different leadership. Now is the best time for change.
Popcorn only puffs when the kernel is hot; placing heat on the City Council will lead to more action.