San Jose spotlight: Despite raise, San Jose lawmakers struggle to survive

by Grace Hase
July 2, 2019

Months before a city commission voted to raise San Jose lawmakers’ salaries by tens of thousands of dollars, Councilmember Sergio Jimenez struggled to make ends meet in Silicon Valley despite serving on the council of America’s 10th largest city.

He started looking for a second gig to help supplement his family’s income. Now, Jimenez works as a licensed realtor with Century 21 – bringing his calling to public servitude to another field.

“Being two of seven children in my family who actually own a home, I know how important it is to build something for your future and how important home ownership is,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “The reason I sought out real estate is because we’re in a career where we’re public servants. I thought that helping people buy and sell residential real estate is in line of helping folks.”

Jimenez and most of his council colleagues got a raise on July 1, increasing their pay from $97,000 to $125,000 a year. Mayor Sam Liccardo received a much lower raise after he decided to waive his $58,000 pay bump in May. Instead, he opted for a 3 percent increase, which he said aligns with raises most city employees received last year. Similarly, Councilmember Johnny Khamis also declined a larger raise and took a 3 percent increase instead.

Even with the raise, Jimenez, who is a father of three children, said he’ll pursue his real estate career to help him and his wife survive in Silicon Valley. He ensures his constituents, though, that the City Council will continue to be his number one priority as he will reserve time for his realtor job during evenings and weekends.

“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he jokes.

Jimenez said he’s working with City Attorney Rick Doyle to avoid any conflicts of interest. He’s considered not entering the San Jose real estate market and only working with family and friends, as well. “Even the impression or optics of being a conflict of interest is not something I’m seeking,” Jimenez said.

In Silicon Valley, one of the country’s priciest rental markets, it’s not unusual for city elected leaders to look for other ways to supplement their incomes. Even with the pay bump, $125,000 doesn’t go very far in the Bay Area – that’s why the majority of councilors said they’ll take their raises, despite the political ramifications.

While Jimenez looks for ways to continue his side hustle without compromising city business, Councilmember Maya Esparza has decided to refrain from taking on any part-time gigs.

“There are all sorts of rules about councilmembers taking on extra work,” she said. “I did not want a conflict of interest. I already have one.”

Esparza was forced to recuse herself when her former employer, Destination: Home, was up for funding. So instead of taking on additional income, she makes sacrifices.

“I live very simply, so I knew that I could run for office in the first place,” she said. “My life is set up so I can do this. I come from a district that needs someone who is going to be out there and I made that decision.”

Another new face to the council, Councilmember Pam Foley, has transitioned from her full-time job in her family’s business – Foley Mortgage – to working  part-time. She estimates that she spends up to three hours a week as a broker, and about 70 to 80 hours a week serving her city.

“It’s really hard to live in San Jose and Silicon Valley and spend the amount of hours we do and the level of activity we have at $100,000,” she said of the council’s pre-raise wage. “It’s not an average wage for similar jobs (of the same workload), but we sacrifice that for the public good.”

Recently, Foley proposed an assistance program to help first-time homebuyers secure a down payment. She said that lenders often require individuals to make $150,000 a year to be offered the 20 percent required down payment on a million dollar home. Even with the raise, councilmembers would be $30,000 shy to qualify for the program, she said.

Unlike his other colleagues with a side gig, Councilmember Raul Peralez doesn’t get paid for his hustle. Two years after he took office, Peralez decided to go back to the San Jose Police Department – this time, as a volunteer reserve officer. He’s required to work at least 16 hours a month, with 10 of them on patrol with a full-time officer.

When Peralez took office in 2015, he earned about $86,000 – a stark difference from the $134,261 he took home the year prior as a San Jose police officer. Peralez added that he believes the raise addresses some of the concerns he’s had about pay dissuading people from running for council.

“I took quite a big pay cut,” Peralez said. “It was not extremely easy and I ended up going into some debt because of it. It didn’t stop me from taking the job, but it was definitely a factor and, in other people’s cases, may be a deterrent.”

Contact Grace Hase at [email protected] or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.