The fine line between civic service and compensation

If Rachel Richards wins a seat on Aspen City Council in the March 5 election or in the April run-off, she’ll be set to draw an annual salary of $20,400 during the four years of her term.

That amount will be lower than the $20,700 she earned as Aspen’s mayor in 2001, the same year she signed an ordinance raising council members’ yearly pay from $14,400 to $20,400, and the mayor’s to $27,900.

It was the first raise Aspen’s public officeholders had received since March 1996. The February 2001 ordinance for the pay increases noted, “The City Council finds that the current compensation for the Mayor and members of Council even after being adjusted for increases in the CPI are not sufficient to encourage persons from all economic backgrounds to participate in public service.” It added that the higher pay “may provide one incentive for citizens with modest financial incomes to consider public service.”

The ordinance also declared the City Council “desires to proclaim and establish a custom and policy of evaluation and adjusting the compensation levels for the Mayor and council members more frequently than it has in the past.”

Eighteen years later, City Council members still are drawing the same amount in compensation — in addition to health benefits — and arguably working more hours per week than they did in the past, chiefly due to a municipal government with a current annual budget of $130 million and land-use applications that can chew up hours of discussion at council meetings and work sessions.

As part of their job duties, elected officials throughout the Roaring Fork Valley also must sit on various such as the Elected Officials Transportation Committee or the Community Office for Resource Efficiency.

Fry cooks make more than council members

Colorado’s minimum wage this year is $11.10 an hour, following the passage of Amendment 70 in November 2016. With the amendment, the state’s minimum wage will increase by 90 cents a year until it reaches $12 an hour in 2020. By then, a person making minimum wage and averages a 40-hour workweek over 52 weeks will draw $24,960 in annual compensation. That’s $4,560 more than an Aspen council person makes, and $2,940 less than the mayor’s pay.

Even so, Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron, who leaves office in June because of term limits, said he hasn’t championed pay increases although his job demands well surpass the traditional 40-hour workweek.

“I never once considered raising the pay rate while I sat there,” he said recent. “And I was very much on the side of it being a community service role, because I think people should accept the responsibility in the spirit of community service, not for a paycheck.”

Councilman Adam Frisch, whose second and final four-year term is drawing to a close, said compensation should be adjusted and indexed to reflect inflation.

Council pay “should provide enough compensation to allow for another part-time job to provide for some type of livability. While the pay does not need to 100 percent match two normal (private sector) jobs — there will always be some monetary sacrifice in doing public service — there is no doubt the low pay is somewhat responsible for the lack of economic diversity of candidates running for local office of late.

“On the other hand, I do not think the pay should be high enough to consider it a full-time wage for most people,” Frisch said.

Frisch, who is running for mayor, noted that inflation indexes show that the current council pay is about $13,000 in 2001 dollars, while the mayor’s is $21,000 in 2001 dollars.

That level of compensation for the amount of work and responsibilities involved can deter individuals from seeking public office, said Frisch, who is raising a family in Aspen while his council job is his main line of work. Frisch’s professional background is in finance.

“While pay is of course a factor in having the community see a wider variety of candidate run for office, I do hope we can see more people with families run for office as well — a key and growing component of our community that has also been vastly underrepresented at the council table for years,” Frisch said in an email responding to questions from The Aspen Times.

Among the eight candidates seeking city office in the March election, Frisch is the sole contestant with children in the Aspen School District.

Additionally, the current council’s five members all own free-market homes in Aspen, a barometer indicating financial comfort.

Pay not compatible with Aspen’s cost of living

According to the Pitkin County Clerk & Recorder’s Office, the collective actual value of the Aspen council members’ residential property is more than $13.5 million — Frisch’s home is $2.5 million; Ward Hauenstein’s is worth $1.9 million; mayoral candidate and Councilwoman Ann Mullins’ is $3.7 million; and the home of Bert Myrin, who is seeking re-election, is valued at nearly $5 million. As well, Skadron’s condo is worth $520,700.

At a Feb. 13 campaign forum hosted by the Aspen Business Luncheon for the City Council candidates, Richards noted that Aspen’s elected officials are compensated more than elected officials in other Roaring Fork Valley municipalities (see fact box). Aspen’s high cost of living, however, also must be considered, the candidates said.

“To me, a City Council that is truly representative should have the full breadth of the community there,” said candidate Skippy Mesirow. “And a salary that precludes most people from running and serving hinders that.”

A salary of $50,000 or $60,000, Mesirow said, “would allow more representation on council, and I think that would be a good thing.”

Richards recently completed her second and final four-year term as a Pitkin County commissioner, whose salaries are established by the state legislature. County commissioners in Colorado, depending on the size of their jurisdiction, can receive as little as $42,147 annually or as high as $120,485. Pitkin County commissioners receive $84,665 a year.

Richards offered that the current City Council “should have raised the salaries before this election, but with three current members running, it was very unlikely they were going to do that because it would seem to self-serving.”

“We do not just want this to become a council of the highest 1 percent who can afford this town,” said Richards, who bought her deed-restricted, employee-housing unit for $64,000 in July 1988, according to property records.

Candidate Linda Manning, if she’s elected, stands to see a hefty cut in pay from her current salary of $90,000 as city clerk. She also lives in city-owned housing.

“Particularly for someone in my position, if I get elected, I will have to work more than one job,” she said. “And it takes away the opportunity to be on the RFTA board and to attend (Aspen Chamber Resort Association) board meetings and the Health and Human Service board meetings. … To have a wage that is even $40,000 a year, I would still work another job because I would have to do that.”

Like Frisch, Myrin, a real estate broker, said salary increases should be indexed. Myrin added, for example, that council pay should increase at the same rate of the city’s food tax refund.

“With the food tax refund, if the community gets a 10 percent increase, the council gets a 10 percent increase,” he said.

In May 2018, Snowmass elected officials increased their annual pay from $12,000 to $14,400 annually, which also includes a $500 monthly stipend for health insurance. The mayor’s pay was hiked from $20,400 to $22,800.

The intention of the increased compensation, noted a memo to council from Town Clerk Rhonda Coxon, was to “make the compensation favorable to attract a larger audience of constituents running for an elected position.”

To Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk, the pay wasn’t what drove her into public service.

“I really didn’t think about that,” she said. “I did it because it was something I want to do, and I see it as public service.”

Higher pay, however, for Snowmass council members would likely attract more interest in the job, said Shenk, who, like Aspen’s elected officials, lives in free-market housing.

“In some ways, I feel like it could be as demanding job as you want it to be,” she said. “You could stick your hands in everything if you wanted to.”

Likewise, Richards said, “I’ve also found over many years that some people a lot of time in no matter what they’re making, and some people put in very little time, no matter what they’re making.”

A pay raise for Aspen’s council could be done through passing an ordinance so long as it is not passed by elected official in the middle of their term, according to Jim True, the city attorney.

Aspen Times Weekly

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