- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - The most senior Tupelo City Council member earns roughly half of what’s budgeted for the position, due to a state law approved 12 years ago.

Councilwoman Nettie Davis, both the first black and female council president, has never earned pay equal to what her colleagues on the council earn, $16,932 annually.

Retired Milam Elementary School principal Travis Beard officially took office this past week and will collect full council pay. Beard worked with Davis, a retired art teacher, in the Tupelo Public School District before she left the system in 2001 after 30 years.

“This isn’t right,” Beard said after he learned of the little-known inequity between Davis and the rest of the City Council.

State law passed in 2002 prevents Davis from ever receiving more than $8,029, the same amount earned since elected to the council in June 2001. Her pay stagnated even while serving a year as council president, which should add $3,000 in pay to compensate for additional duties. Davis received 44.7 percent of what prior council presidents earned.

Along with seniority, Davis, who represents Tupelo’s Ward 4, also leads all other city elected officials in certifications offered by the Mississippi Municipal League.

Even with such a wide pay gap between Davis and her colleagues, she acknowledges the situation could be worse. Her predecessor, Boyce “Hank” Grayson, the first black resident elected to Tupelo city government, received no financial compensation for his time in the elected office. He was a public school teacher until he retired and then served on the council for 20 years.

The discrepancies through the years have nothing to do with representation or skin color.

Blame goes to state law limiting pay to local elected officials who receive benefits from the Public Employee Retirement System.

Before former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove signed the law a dozen years ago, retired state employees receiving benefits from PERS, like Grayson, could receive no financial compensation if elected to county or municipal government positions.

Currently, most retirees collecting PERS benefits elected to office follow the same formula: They can earn no more than 25 percent of the average of the four highest years of annual salary.

Most county, municipal and state employees receive retirement benefits through PERS, although highway patrol officers and state lawmakers each have separate retirement programs.

Lee County Chancery Clerk Bill Benson represents county employees statewide on the 10-member PERS board. He said retired public employees with PERS benefits returning to public service involves many different scenarios, depending on factors such as age and the type of job and government organization employing the retiree.

“Each case can be different,” Benson said. “You can’t paint them all with a broad brush.”

Lawmakers decided on the 25 percent calculation to allow retired public employees to receive some income for their elected public service but not allow them to collect full pay within local government while also participating in PERS.

This effort to bridge inequities between retirees with PERS benefits and all other elected officials created a new pay inequity between elected officials collecting PERS benefits. This situation withholds pay of some elected officials for reasons no longer in their control, such as age and income prior to retirement.

For example, an art teacher who retires this year but worked the exact number of years as Davis would almost certainly earn more serving on the Tupelo City Council, based on teacher pay raises elevating annual salaries through the years.

Beard’s highest four years of annual salary prior to retiring could allow him to earn up to $23,895 as an elected official, $15,866 more than Davis, a difference of 33.6 percent.

“There’s some unfairness in it,” Davis said. “Mr. Beard just came on board and will make more than I do. He doesn’t have any experience in politics.”

Each year, Tupelo’s annual budget provides fully funds salaries for each position, including Davis’ council position. This adds up to $104,376 budgeted over the course of 13 years Davis has served on the council.

“I always ask what they do with that extra money,” she said. “They say it goes into the general fund.”

Statewide, the pay inequity among some elected officials who retired under the PERS system has created chatter through the years but not recently.

Robbie Brown, director of member services at the Mississippi Municipal League since 2007, pay differences among retired public employees elected to public office could create awkward moments.

“It was probably hard to predict something like this happening,” he said. “But if someone makes twice as much it certainly could cause some tension.”

Each year, MML leaders compile a list of matters affecting municipalities and bring them to lawmakers for consideration. Davis said she’d like the organization to request changing the law for future elected officials in her situation.

Brown said the issue hasn’t been discussed for inclusion in MML’s legislative agenda; however, if enough elected officials voice support, the organization could push the issue in the future.

In the meantime, Davis said she will continue her duty as an elected official for Ward 4 residents and everyone else in Tupelo. She always has voted to approve pay increases for city employees, including council members, and has no plans to change.

“I’m not going to vote against a raise just because I can’t get it,” she said.

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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