Aspen City Council talks pay raises
One of the last policy issues that Aspen City Council members discussed before the pandemic hit Aspen in March was whether to give their successors a raise, and the issue will be brought up again in the coming weeks as 2021 budget sessions begin this fall.
The majority of council voiced support during a March 9 work session to consider an ordinance that brings the mayor’s annual salary from $27,900 to $49,500, and the council from $20,400 to $41,000.
Days later, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred in Aspen and the municipal government went into response mode as the pandemic continued.
Council has recently been returning to its policy work that it had been forging ahead on for 2020.
Council members said the amount of work the job requires should be commensurate with the pay, and a higher salary would attract a better cross section of candidates because it’s difficult to have a full-time job and represent the city as an elected official.
Mayor Torre said during normal circumstances the job is almost full-time, but COVID-19 has made it 24/7.
“Before the pandemic I was spending more than part-time in hours and effort,” he said. “Now it’s seven days a week and it’s eclipsed that 40-hour (a week) mark.”
As a tennis instructor, Torre is able to have a flexible work schedule, as do most of the rest of the current council members.
“If you hold a job in this community, there are going to be tradeoffs with city business and your job,” he said. “I’ve been able to have that balance, but it’s a strain.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who juggles her municipal responsibilities with her job at City Market, said earlier this month she is in favor of raising council’s salary, although it will not benefit her.
It will benefit the three people who take office in June, after they are elected in March 2020 when the majority of the five-seat council is up.
Ward Hauenstein, Ann Mullins and Torre’s seats are up. It’s too early for them to say whether they are running but a higher salary could change the dynamic of who runs for office.
Hauenstein said he is supportive of even more than what was suggested in March.
“I don’t know what the right number is but I still think City Council should get paid a lot more for what we do,” he said, adding he acknowledges that the timing and optics during the pandemic are bad.
Hauenstein, an owner of a computer business, said he has turned jobs away because he’s too busy with city work pre-pandemic.
He said council members serve first and foremost because they care about the community.
“Nobody takes this position for the money,” Hauenstein said. “They run for the love of the town and public service.”
Torre said it’s an honor and privilege to serve as mayor.
“I sought it knowing the compensation,” he said. “It’s a labor of love but that love doesn’t pay the bills.”
The council and mayor haven’t seen a raise since 2001. And prior to that, the last raise was in 1996.
Over the years, councils have raised the issue of pay but it never went anywhere due to a lack of support.
Some council members agree that the community’s expectations do not match the current compensation.
“Work with staff, council and the public requires that,” Torre said.
Mullins said she doesn’t support a pay increase at this time because of COVID-19 economic burdens on the government, as well as on average citizens, even though she believes council members should get paid more.
“We do work harder than most people realize,” she said, adding that she averages four days a week working on city business, including hours upon hours of public meetings.
The city had to cut roughly $16 million from its 2020 budget, projecting a $25 million loss in revenue.
In his budget update last week, City Finance Director Pete Strecker said the local economy did better than projected, and sales tax receipts through July were only 15% down.
But there are some real economic implications to state and local public health orders that the city needs to remain cautious about as it prepares the 2021 budget, he said.
When comparing pay to eight other mountain towns, Aspen’s electeds are paid the most, except Park City, Utah, where the mayor makes $44,472 and council members $22,968.
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