Aspen City Council is set to begin consideration of its first pay raise since 2001 at today’s meeting.
Ordinance 11 proposes a $200 monthly increase to the stipend for council members and mayor. If approved, the increase would go into effect as new terms start, so that no one voting tonight is giving themselves a raise.
In Aspen, council wages are not meant to supplant full-time work. A memorandum to council members from City Attorney Jim True states that if the increase is approved, the compensation levels would still be low enough to ensure that salary alone would not be a reason for candidates to seek council positions.
“Due to the relatively modest increase, the ordinance does reflect the assertion that council does not believe that this compensation is an incentive for participating in public service,” True wrote.
If approved on first reading, a public hearing and final vote would be held on May 6. It would approve a salary for the mayor of $30,300 a year, or $2,520 per month, and $22,800 annually, or $1,900 per month, for council members.
An automatic cost-of-living bump would be added every four years. All members also are allowed a stipend for health insurance up to the amount that regular full-time city employees are granted.
Councilman Adam Frisch, who steps down in June because of term limits, said he believes the ordinance will ultimately pass, but there will be discussion regarding the level of raises. Frisch argued that when measured for inflation since the 2001 raise, the levels should be higher than proposed.
“If you adjust it for inflation, the numbers should be $30,000 for council and $40,000 for mayor,” Frisch said.
He added that as the cost of living has increased in Aspen over the last 18 years, so has the council’s workload. Creating compensation closer to part-time, 20-hour weeks will diversify the candidate base for council, he said.
“I would like to see some people showing up that would like to get involved to do something, that otherwise wouldn’t be able to financially do so,” Frisch said.
Beyond the numbers, Frisch said he hopes to have a conversation about why the pay raise is needed. He pointed out that the last few council makeups have not included anyone who lives in affordable housing, or who is part of the area’s service industry.
Similarly, recent brush-ups with the business community, including a backlash regarding trading parking spaces for a bike lane on restaurant row, made it clear to him that there is no one on council responsible for a payroll or managing employees.
Frisch spoke to what he sees as a growing “disconnect” that comes from “not having elected officials paying rent in town” or handling business payrolls.
“We’ve also lost people who are truly reliant on the local economy,” he said, referring to elected officials.
City staff conducted a survey of other Western ski towns for comparison. Aspen’s compensation to elected officials falls in the middle of towns like Vail, Park City and Jackson. In Snowmass Village, the mayor receives $1,700 per month and council members receive $1,200 month; a $500 health insurance compensation is being rolled out for new members.
Council members Ann Mullins and Ward Hauenstein both continue their terms when the new council is seated in June, but would not be able to receive the raise, regardless of how they vote on the measure. Incoming mayor Torre and council members Skippy Mesirow and Rachel Richards would realize the increase in their stipends when seated.
Richards is joining the council after being term-limited as a 12-year member of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners. Elected officials at the county level have minimum salaries set by the state of Colorado. The current annual salary requirement for Pitkin County commissioners is $84,665.
Frisch doesn’t believe that council members should receive a full-time salary in the manner that commissioners receive. He also doesn’t believe that an additional $7,000 per year, his proposed increase, would convince people to leave their current jobs and instead run for elected office just for the pay.
He said he considers his suggested rate to still fall under the honorarium philosophy of compensation for elected officials, but he thinks that any increase might help change the demographics of the council moving forward.
“It’s very easy for all of us living in free-market homes to say you should do it just for the honor,” Frisch said. “Honor doesn’t pay rent or buy a ski pass.”