Members of Durango City Council report spending up to 20 hours per week serving in their elected roles. They meet during the workweek, serve on committees, get stopped in grocery stores, attend ribbon-cuttings and take phone calls at random times from constituents.
For their troubles, they earn $867 per month, or $10,404 per year, in addition to medical, dental and vision benefits – not nearly enough to be considered a livable wage. The mayor, an honorary title that rotates among councilors each year, earns slightly more at $13,404 per year.
While the pay is not great, city councilors have the power to make key decisions that affect the future direction of the city. But some councilors are concerned the lack of compensation and intense time commitment severely limits who can serve on council and shape Durango’s future.
Can someone who works a nine-to-five job (or two jobs) with student debt, a car payment and housing costs really serve on City Council? Or is the privilege reserved for retired and affluent individuals, and those who can set their own hours?
The average age among sitting councilors is 56. Three of the five councilors, Mayor Barbara Noseworthy, Councilor Kim Baxter and Councilor Melissa Youssef, are retired. Councilor Jessika Buell owns two businesses, Marketing Concepts Squared and Lucky Services; and Councilor Olivier Bosmans founded Globos Consulting LLC, an international consulting firm, in 2005.
Youssef said her City Council salary has little impact on her quality of life. But an increase in pay for future councilors, particularly those who are still working, may be a different story. For example, if council pay was increased to $25,000, a councilor might be able to balance public service with a part-time job and still be able to make ends meet.
According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual pay for part-time jobs in Colorado is $25,744, or about $12.38 an hour. A councilor with a part-time job and $25,000 in annual city compensation could earn $50,744 a year.
While part-time work would still be needed to make ends meet, higher pay for serving on City Council would at least make it possible for those in lower-income brackets to participate, Noseworthy said.
She said people in their 20s, 30s and 40s know firsthand how difficult it is to live in Durango and afford rent. Many are caught up in the “Durango Tango.”
“They’re the ones doing two and three jobs,” she said, “... whereas older, perhaps more (financially) comfortable people don’t have that same intensity.”
The financial struggle is not limited to young people, she said, but making it more feasible for them to serve on City Council could be beneficial. Young people are invested in their futures, and giving them the opportunity to make decisions that impact policy and infrastructure could provide a path forward for young generations.
Councilors Baxter, Bosmans and Buell said they aren’t sure if they support an increase in pay, but they are open to exploring the idea.
Buell said she might be able to support increasing the pay to $20,000 per year with the hope that a broader range of candidates would be attracted to the position. But if a pay raise was attached to a set of required work hours – say the standard 40 hours a week – she worries some people would be deterred from running because of the additional commitment.
“I wouldn’t have run for a commitment of 40 hours a week because I run businesses and I have other jobs,” she said. “... So you would lose people like me putting their hat in the bucket. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just different.”
Although some weeks require more time than others, the position requires, on average, 20 hours a week, Buell said. She wants to learn about the pros and cons of increasing City Council pay versus the benefits and drawbacks to keeping current pay the same.
Noseworthy said she works about the same number of hours – an average of 80 per month – doing City Council business.
Youssef, who is in her second term in office and will start her sixth year on City Council this April, said she thinks more pay for future councilors is warranted for the scope of work councilors take on, including talking with constituents, hours spent reviewing meeting documents and staff reports, and attending meetings. She doesn’t have a specific pay rate in mind and her opinion could change after discussions with her colleagues.
Her main concern is making sure future councilors are fairly paid for the time and commitment being asked.
Any increase in pay should apply only to new city councilors, she said. In other words, she doesn’t support allowing sitting councilors to give themselves a raise. Other councilors said the same.
“I fully understand the workload and the commitment (of being a city councilor),” she said. “And even more importantly, the expectation from the community. There are times when I would like to see future councilors that I might recruit for the job compensated – in my perspective – more justly for the value that they will bring to the table.”
Youssef wants to examine how communities similar to Durango have approached compensation for elected officials.
“We expect (councilors) to bring their work experience, their knowledge, their education, their outreach with the community,” she said. “And all of the work that they’ve done analyzing and reading through the documents and sifting through the agendas, we expect them to bring all that to the table, sort through it all, analyze it and come to decisions.”
Youssef said she has had “many sleepless nights,” and the amount of emotional stress councilors endure is “tremendous.”
Baxter said the question of whether to increase pay is challenging.
Treating the position like a full- or part-time job and paying accordingly would require more structure to the role, she said. If the job requires 20 hours per week, what would be an acceptable hourly rate? What are the requirements of the job? The same goes for a 40-hour workweek structure, she said.