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What worth councilors?

I'm trying hard to work up some sympathy for Boston city councilors. Because our councilors are, as you may have heard, very likely underpaid.

A compensation review committee appointed by the mayor is probably going to recommend later this spring that salaries for the mayor and the City Council -- now $150,000 and $75,000, respectively -- be hiked by an amount to be determined. They are said to be making less than their counterparts in some comparable cities.

Underpaid? Are you kidding? As it is, councilors make almost 50 percent more than state senators -- who, hard as it may be to believe, work a lot harder than most city councilors do.

In fact, there are many people of whom that can be said.

Here is a selective list, by occupation, of Bostonians who work harder and make less money than a city councilor. The figures, which are averages for Massachusetts, come from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Substance abuse counselor: $37,570.

Marriage therapists: $54,270.

Preschool teachers: $27,780.

Kindergarten teachers: $51,540.

Corrections officers: $50,230.

Cooks, short order: $21,770.

Home health aides: $27,670.

Animal trainers: $31,580.

School bus drivers: $29,070.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Now, councilors will tell you that the problem with setting your own salary is that there's no way to do it without being criticized for feathering your own nest. Once, that argument even may have held some validity.

But in the Tom Menino years, both the mayor's and the council's salaries have grown robustly. The public firestorm that once accompanied any talk of a pay raise has subsided greatly, partly because of Menino's popularity and partly because they now get to say they are acting on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon panel. Nice move, setting up that Compensation Advisory Board.

Its chairman, Lawrence DiCara, a former city councilor, told me Friday that staff members and prospective employees, especially in such highly marketable areas as information technology, are reluctant to work for the salaries the city offers. Those positions would also pay more, if the council approves. As it surely will.

Let's review what city councilors do. They meet once a week. They won't meet this week, or any week with a holiday in it. If you understand why a Monday holiday precludes meeting on the following Wednesday, you're ahead of me.

Councilors sit on committees. These committees meet from time to time, mostly in the spring, when the council is deliberating the budget. Committees also meet when their chairperson wants to rake a city department head over the coals and needs a forum for doing so. Other members may or may not show up, or may wander in and out, depending on the demands of their lunch/golf schedules.

The council passes the city budget. It does not actually generate a proposed budget; the mayor and his staff do that. Once councilors get tired of hearings and posturing, they always pass the budget, having little recourse.

Famously, councilors perform constituent service. This is really the backbone of the job. They help your grandmother get into elders' housing, or try to help people get into rehab. This is easily the most taxing part of the job -- though staff members do a lot of the heavy lifting.

That's about it, except for the dreaded task of occasionally appearing before the Zoning Board of Appeal or the Boston Redevelopment Authority to weigh in on neighborhood issues. Why dreaded? Because it's a) boring and b) impossible to side with anyone in a neighborhood dispute without alienating someone else.

Councilors are against alienation, bless their hearts.

Look, I'm all for a day's pay for a day's work. But the idea that they're getting the shaft is a tough sell.

I think the city's kindergarten teachers will back me up on this.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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