Niagara County legislators haven't had a pay raise in 18 years, but they're making up for lost time.
At last week's meeting, they added a $4,000 raise for each of the 15 members to the proposed 2018 budget.
That equals a 26.5 percent pay raise for rank-and-file legislators. Party leaders are in line for a 25.7 percent hike, and the Legislature chairman will receive a 22.1 percent boost in salary.
"We justify it because we haven't had a raise in 18 years," said Legislator Kathryn L. Lance, R-Wheatfield.
"For the things we have to do, I don't think (the raise) is large," said Legislator Owen T. Steed, D-Niagara Falls.
"I think the job is worth the money," said Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville.
Legislature Chairman W. Keith McNall said legislators are currently earning a subminimum wage.
Currently, most legislators are paid $15,075 a year. The two party leaders receive $500 more than that, and the chairman is paid $3,000 more than the base rate.
McNall said for pension purposes, the state retirement system regards legislators as working 30 hours a week. At $15,075, that works out to $9.66 an hour.
"The kids at McDonald's are making more than that," said McNall, R-Lockport. The current minimum wage in most of New York State is $9.70, a figure that rises to $10.40 on Dec. 31.
The proposed new base Legislature pay of $19,075 works out to $12.23 an hour.
"They didn't want it to be too far above minimum," McNall said.
The majority and minority leaders are to be paid $19,575, and next year's chairman would receive $22,075.
When County Manager Richard E. Updegrove and Budget Director Daniel R. Huntington released the 2018 budget Nov. 15, reporters asked them if the legislators would be receiving raises. They said no.
But Tuesday, after three closed-door caucuses, the Legislature voted 9-3, with three members absent, to increase their pay. The opponents were three Republicans: Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt of North Tonawanda, John Syracuse of Newfane and Michael A. Hill of Hartland. None could be reached Saturday.
"It's been talked about over the last few years," McNall said.
The size of the Legislature was reduced from 19 to 15 members in 2012, which gave everyone a larger district. But McNall said the lawmakers felt their job performance justifies a raise.
"I think the Legislature has done a good job governing, especially with the last two budgets," Burmaster said.
The 2018 budget, if passed as proposed, will reduce the average full value tax rate to its lowest level since 1980, and total spending is being reduced for the second year in a row. All county union contracts have been settled, after being on hold for a few years.
Voters seem satisfied. They re-elected all 15 incumbents Nov. 7, with nine of them running without opposition.
Legislators decided it was time to take their first pay increase vote of this century.
"They looked at the last two years of the budget. They thought it might be a good idea to make the job more attractive for future candidates," McNall said.
"We've worked so hard to provide contracts to county workers," said Legislator Kathryn L. Lance, R-Wheatfield. "It was time to re-evaluate our salaries that we receive as public servants."
"Speaking for me, I deserve it," Steed said. "I only have a part-time job, so for me, it would be a big deal."
The last time this subject came up, in 1999, every legislator received an increase of $3,000, or almost 25 percent. It took effect in January 2000, and their salaries haven't changed since.
The 2018 budget won't be voted on until Dec. 12, but legislators had to act now on their salaries because it is printed in the legal notice for the public hearing on the budget, which needed to be approved last week.
That hearing will be held at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5 in the County Courthouse, 175 Hawley St., Lockport.
This is only the second raise in the past 27 years for the legislators. In 1990, lawmakers voted themselves a 5 percent increase, which took effect in 1991 and was worth $575 for most members.