After debate, Aurora lawmakers green light November ballot question to increase their pay

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AURORA| Aurora City Council members Monday night tentatively agreed to ask voters to increase their salaries via a ballot question in this fall’s general election.

By a vote of 6-4, city council members signed off on an ordinance that would ask voters to grant the city’s elected officials a pay bump for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Council members Marsha Berzins, Barb Cleland, Sally Mounier and Charlie Richardson voted no on the measure.

The ordinance calling for the ballot measure still needs to receive final approval from council members during a second reading at a future meeting.

Council members are asking voters to approve a 33-percent pay raise for the city’s politicos. The current ballot question asks to bring the annual salary for city council members to $18,550, while the mayor would make $80,000. The city’s mayor pro tem, a position currently filled by At-Large Councilwoman Angela Lawson, would earn $20,550 a year.

Currently, council members earn $13,950, the mayor makes $60,226 and the mayor pro tem nets $15,953.

Council salaries were last modified with a voter-approved charter amendment in 1993, while an additional tweak was made to just the mayor’s compensation three years later.

At that time, council salaries were set at $8,293.92 per year and the mayor pro tem’s compensation was set at $9,483. The mayor’s salary was set at $11,847 in 1993 and changed to $40,000 in 1996.

Council members salaries have increased in the past 20 years due to adjustments made for cost of living increases calculated by the U.S. Department of Labor Consumer Price Index. That stipulation would remain in place if the new measure is approved by voters.

Council members are also eligible to receive a number of other job perks, including COBRA healthcare coverage after ending their time on council, about $1,100 in monthly allowances for gas and other limited expenses, and $7,000 in annual travel costs to relevant meetings and conferences. The mayor is entitled to $11,000 in annual travel expenses, according to city documents.

City council members can also qualify for a pension after their term, which varies according to how long and when they served.

At a recent council study session, Council Member Francoise Bergan unsuccessfully lobbied to have the ballot proposal split into two separate questions, one for council members and the mayor pro tem and another for the mayor.

“I know it’s very awkward as elected officials to put forth a request for an increase in salary and I think none of us are doing this job because of the money…because we’re sorely underpaid in terms of the number of hours that we put in,” she said. “So I think we do it because we really care about our community and our constituents, but having said that there is value to our work.

“From a value perspective, I value the work that I do and I value the work that my colleagues do and so I just think it’s fair. I do, though, think it should be two ballot questions — no offense to you, mayor — but I think you will be a drag on the ballot.”

Council members ultimately rejected Bergan’s plea.

“I think it should be a package,” Councilman Bob LeGare said at the study session. “Go to your employer and ask for a raise and let them say yes or no.”

Councilwoman Renie Peterson asked her colleagues to call for a sizable raise as the subject of officials’ compensation is unlikely to be broached again for another several decades.

“If we haven’t asked since 1993, chances are it’s going to be another 20 years out before council asks for any increase again,” she said.

Council Member Brad Pierce, who serves as chairman of the city’s management and finance policy committee where the issue was initially discussed, reiterated that the city’s population, and therefore the responsibility of council members, has ballooned since council last received a pay increase.

“A lot more has happened in the city since this was first under the charter and so we just thought at the committee level the salary ought to be raised for everyone, not just one class of elected,” Pierce said at the study session.

Compared to 17 other Front Range municipalities, Aurora is the only city with a council-manager form of government and a full-time mayor. Because of that, compensation for the city’s mayor is much higher than most neighboring cities with a council-manager format.

Cities with a strong mayor model of government pay their mayor significantly more than council-manager cities. The state’s two largest cities, Denver and Colorado Springs, which are both strong mayor cities, pay their mayors $171,197 and $103,370, respectively, according to Aurora city documents.

At the Monday meeting, Council Member Marsha Berzins made an unsuccessful pitch to stall the pay raise vote and instead consider moving the city to a full-time council format.

“It is not a part-time job,” she said. “Just increasing our wages a few dollars here, a few dollars there — it’s just putting a BandAid on the issue. We need to step back and say, ‘Do we want a full-time council that can help us 24/7, or not?'”

Cleland agreed with Berzins’ assessment.

“I don’t think that this year should be the year to do it,” Cleland said. “It needs, in my mind, to be looked at much more thoroughly.”

Compared to about 20 cities with populations between 300,000 and 400,000 across the country, Aurora is most compatible with Stockton, California, which has both a council-manager style of government and a full-time mayor like Aurora. In Stockton, the mayor earns $72,384 and council members earn $16,529, according to Aurora city documents.