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Higher pay for Durango city councilors receives support but hits a snag

Better compensation could help lower-income residents run for public office
Barbara Noseworthy, left, and Kim Baxter are sworn in to Durango City Council in April 2019. (Durango Herald file)

Durango city councilors said this week that past city councils have been largely dominated by self-employed, retired, affluent or otherwise time-flexible council members, and city leadership could stand for more diversity.

The practical solution, they said, is to increase wages for city councilors.

City Council members currently earn $867 per month, or $10,404 per year, in addition to medical, dental and vision benefits. The mayor, an honorary title among councilors that rotates yearly, earns a little more at $13,404 per year.

Several ideas were bantered about at Tuesday’s study session. Councilors said a salary of around $20,000 annually, not including benefits, would allow lower-income residents to run for office and hold a part-time job while serving on council.

Councilors were giddy about the idea of a resident-led initiative to draft a new compensation rate for city councilors, which could be put to the voters. But on Thursday, Tom Sluis, city spokesman, said the city charter states any change in compensation would need to stem from a city ordinance, and a resident-led initiative is not viable.

The charter says council members cannot benefit from any salary increases during their current term and they will receive “their actual and necessary expenses incurred in the performance of their official duties.”

The last time an increase in pay was afforded to Durango City Council was in 2015 when councilors approved a bump upward from $500 a month to the current rate of $867 a month, according to Ordinance No. 0-2015-21.

Mayor Barbara Noseworthy said the city is exploring its options on how to proceed with possible action and welcomes public feedback in support or opposition to increased pay for councilors.

On Tuesday, she said she is concerned about future City Councils because there are many people in the community who have a lot to offer through City Council, but they can’t afford the time commitment on top of a full-time job.

Councilor Kim Baxter, whose total compensation including benefits is $32,000 a year, said higher compensation for future councilors should come with options to allocate pay to salary and benefits depending on a councilor’s needs.

“Your salary is your salary, but if you need insurance then part of your salary goes to insurance or something like that,” she said. “Maybe that’s the way to do it so it’s equal for all councilors, except the mayor has that little bump because there’s more responsibility.”

Councilor Jessika Buell, who owns two businesses, said she doesn’t take health insurance from the city because she is on another plan and she is earning $11,000 in total compensation. City Council would be more appealing to people in her position if pay, not including benefits, was $20,000 annually.

She said the pay isn’t why she ran for public office, but it could affect other residents’ decisions to run for City Council.

“You hope that there’s people that love our community and see those important decisions coming up and want to make sure there is a good voice that represents Durango,” she said.

Councilor Melissa Youssef said that after serving on City Council for six years, she firmly believes future councilors should be more fairly compensated for their commitment.

“It’s a sacrifice. You could be doing something else and you’ve chosen to dedicate your time and effort to the city, which I truly appreciate,” she said.

But feedback she’s received from constituents indicates some residents are totally against any raise in pay for councilors and will “never” support it. That’s why she found the notion of a resident-led initiative appealing.

Councilor Olivier Bosmans did not attend the study session on Tuesday. He told The Durango Herald in a previous interview he does not have an opinion on whether to support or oppose a raise in council compensation, but he is open to exploring the idea.

Devon Schmidt, city budget and strategic planning officer, said in a report Tuesday that the average total compensation for councilors is $28,959 if counting benefits, which some councilors rely on while others do not. Among sitting councilors, individual compensation including the value of benefits ranges from $11,300 to $42,648. (The costs associated with benefits are higher for councilors with family members on their plans.)

Durango pays on average $1,117 to the mayor and $867 to city councilors per month and offers full benefits, the same package offered to staff, to councilors. The city’s population is 19,500 residents.

City staff examined the wages of numerous towns and cities with comparable population sizes and municipal governments to Durango to see how they compensate their elected officials:

  • Greenwood Village pays $3,000 to the mayor and $1,500 to city councilors per month and has a population of 15,495 residents. It offers health insurance to the mayor.
  • Cañon City pays $750 to the mayor and $500 to councilors per month. It offers no benefits and serves a population of 17,363.
  • And Frederick offers no pay and no benefits to councilors or the mayor, and has a population of 15,761.


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