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City Council's 23 percent raise hinges on one member's vote

The quietly simmering issue has developed into a deep, and sometimes emotional, rift. A final decision comes next week.

Published September 26, 2003

TAMPA - City Council member Mary Alvarez sat silently as her colleagues took sides.

A proposal to give council members a 23 percent pay raise looked headed for defeat. Council Chairwoman Linda Saul-Sena had switched sides to vote no.

Any other comments?

"No," Alvarez said.

Then the council voted, and the increase died on a 3-3 split.

Immediately afterward during a break, Alvarez headed for Saul-Sena.

"I'm leaving," she said, according to Saul-Sena.

Alvarez didn't offer any reason.

She picked up her papers and walked out the door. She didn't return for the meeting, which ran at least four hours longer.

The scene showed how sensitive an issue money can be for some council members, who earn $28,900 a year for a job that keeps them in meetings past 10 p.m. With a 23 percent bump, the annual salary would be $35,600.

Next Thursday, council member Gwen Miller will cast the deciding vote on the raise. Miller was home Thursday, recovering from surgery for breast cancer. She said she hadn't made up her mind yet.

The issue divided the council into two camps - with Saul-Sena in the middle. Several were miffed that Saul-Sena had changed sides.

"She's the chairman," Alvarez said of Saul-Sena. "She can do whatever she wants."

Alvarez said she was disappointed that some colleagues "didn't feel like we were deserving" of more money.

Council members come from disparate economic backgrounds. Alvarez, who is married to a banker, listed a net worth on financial disclosure forms of more than $2-million. Council member John Dingfelder, who opposed the increase, listed his net worth at $200,000.

Sipping a cup of tea at home Thursday night, Alvarez denied leaving the meeting in anger. She said she left after the vote because she felt sick.

"I was feeling bad already, and there was no reason to stay," Alvarez said. "I decided I couldn't stay there and go to the bathroom and throw up."

At home, she lay down, sipped tea, and went to bed early.

"Of course, I was disappointed," Alvarez acknowledged about the vote. "I put in a lot of hours."

She said she had heard "good vibrations" from members of the public who felt she deserved the salary increase.

When the meeting began, members were all smiles. They passed the mayor's $646-million budget unanimously.

Then council member Kevin White began reading from prepared remarks. White, first elected in March, told council members that he didn't realize how much time the job would take.

"Until I got here, I did not understand what an awesome responsibility this would be," White said.

Since taking office, White had left his job at a St. Petersburg auto dealership, which paid $150,000 per year. He has gone two months without other work, but says he plans to accept a job offer soon.

Although council members usually have only one or two meetings a week, they get scores of invitations to neighborhood meetings, groundbreakings and bar mitzvahs. White said he felt obligated to go.

He also said council members do not earn as much as colleagues in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, who earn from $30,000 to $39,750 annually.

Council members in St. Petersburg earn less - about $25,000 a year. Clearwater members get about $16,000 annually.

In Tampa, White said, council members have not received a "significant" pay raise since 1998. "That's five years."

White wasn't counting as significant the cost of living increases that council members see most years. In 1998, the council voted to automatically raise salaries every year at the same rate as for the city's top managers, usually 2 to 3 percent.

Council Chairwoman Saul-Sena looked to see who would speak next. Council member Shawn Harrison motioned.

"I am not going to support this at this time," he said.

Although council members worked hard, the council ought to consider a raise for all city employees, he said. "I don't feel comfortable at all doing this," he said.

Then, Saul-Sena joined the opposition.

Two months ago, she had cheerfully supported the raise. But Thursday, she said she might vote for a raise that took effect after the next election.

Council member Rose Ferlita, who supported the raise, could count the votes. She asked White if he wanted to table the raise.

No, he said. He wanted a vote.

White, Ferlita and Alvarez voted yes. Saul-Sena, Harrison and John Dingfelder voted no.

After the vote, White said he was "floored."

No one had spoken against it when he raised the topic of a raise during a budget meeting this summer.

Two months ago, White had stood next to a reporter in the lobby and heard Saul-Sena say she'd back a raise. He reminded a reporter what Saul-Sena had said.

"Evidently, she doesn't think she is worth it," White said.

A moment later, Saul-Sena entered and took a seat. White walked away.

Did she think she was worth the raise?

"I feel this is really public service - that our salaries are almost nominal," she said.

She had thought about the raise, and changed her mind, she said.

"This has been a tough issue for me," she said.

Moments later, she was back at work. The Council meeting ran well past ended at 11 p.m.

- Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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