The number of Pitkin County and city of Aspen employees earning more than $100,000 has grown by 18 since the pre-recession boom days of 2007, according to salary records released by both jurisdictions under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Pitkin County now has 16 employees pulling in six figures, up from eight in 2007, while the city of Aspen has 20 workers earning over $100,000 compared to 12 seven years ago.
The highest-paid city of Aspen employees are generally better compensated than county workers, a trend that has held true for years. Aspen City Manager Steve Barwick has been the highest earner in the upper valley at least since 2007 — he made $173,763 before benefits in 2013, which is $15,228 more than he earned six years earlier.
Aspen City Attorney Jim True is the city’s next highest earner, bringing in $152,310 in 2013. He’s followed by Assistant City Manager Randy Ready ($148,354), Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Woods ($132,437), Police Chief Richard Pryor ($128,396), Capital Asset Director Scott Miller ($126,674), Information Technology Director Jim Considine ($124,640), Finance Director Don Taylor ($122,477), Utilities Director David Hornbacher ($122,013) and City Engineer Tricia Aragon ($119,808) to round out the top 10.
On the Pitkin County side, County Attorney John Ely is the highest paid, pulling in $169,395 in 2013 and earning $28,000 more than he did six years ago. Ely has been the highest paid county employee since former County Manager Hilary Fletcher resigned in 2010, and he’s followed by current County Manager Jon Peacock, who made $152,250 in 2013. Library Director Cathy Chandler is next on the list ($129,879), followed by Health and Human Services Director Nan Sundeen ($128,819), Assistant County Attorney Chris Seldin ($127,862), Community Development Director Cindy Houben ($126,414), Aviation Director Jim Elwood ($124,760), Public Works Director Brian Pettet ($124,600), Assistant County Manager Phylis Mattice ($123,363) and Undersheriff Ron Ryan ($111,640) at number 10.
Sheriff Joe DiSalvo, whose salary is set by the Board of County Commissioners, comes in with the 12th highest wage in the county, earning $107,069 in 2013.
Inflation — the decline in the purchasing power of money over time — wipes out some of the salary gains that the highest paid public employees in the upper valley have seen in recent years, but not all of them: Pitkin County still has one more person earning over $100,000 in inflation adjusted dollars than in 2007, and the city of Aspen has two more.
Salary records do suggest that the rate of pay increases enjoyed by many public workers has declined since the recession began. In 2007, before the recession hit, many public employees had seen raises of more than $20,000 over the prior two years alone, according to a previous analysis of salary data by this newspaper. Since then, however, no employee has seen an increase of more than $28,000 over six years, the raise that Ely, the county attorney, has received.
Still, after mostly stagnating for several years due to pay freezes and cutbacks brought on by the recession, public salaries in the upper valley are slowly edging upward again.
The city of Aspen offered employees an annual merit pay increase of up to 8 percent until 2009, according to Taylor, the city finance director. That year, employee pay was frozen because of falling tax receipts, and wages stayed stagnant until mid-2011 when the city gave workers an across-the-board 2 percent cost of living increase. In 2012, annual merit pay increases were reinstated, but they now max out at 4 percent, half the pre-recession level.
Pitkin County wages followed a roughly similar trajectory over the course of the recession, according to county budget director Connie Garofalo. Before the recession, merit pay increases of 4 percent per year were commonplace. Salaries were frozen in 2010 to compensate for declining revenues, then in 2012 workers got a one time across-the-board bonus of $1,125 apiece. Finally, merit pay raises returned in 2013, but they’re now capped a 3 percent per year.
“We will not be back up to 4 percent any time in the foreseeable future,” Garofalo said.
Both Aspen and Pitkin County have compensation committees that set wages based on what workers in comparable jurisdictions — Vail and Summit County, for instance — are earning each year.
When opportunities exist to do the same job in the private sector, such as with heavy equipment operators or road and bridge crews, the compensation committees will examine wages at private companies as well, according to Garofalo.
“After that, they will add on a little bit, assuming that we have a higher cost of living compared to other resort communities,” she said.