Budget proposal to increase city commissioner pay from $9,000 to $38,000 sparks debate among city leaders
photo by: City of Lawrence
City Manager Tom Markus’ recommended budget is proposing the first salary increase for city commissioners in 20 years, but commissioners disagree on how much salaries should go up.
Budget and Strategic Initiatives Manager Danielle Buschkoetter told the commission at its meeting Tuesday that the recommended budget would increase salaries for commissioners to $38,000. Buschkoetter said there wasn’t a good benchmark for what other communities paid their elected leaders but that the increase would bring City Commission salaries more in line with what Douglas County commissioners make annually. While most commissioners said they thought the raise was needed so that the commissioner pay did not prohibit some people from running for office, they were also concerned about increasing it so much in one year.
Commissioner Matthew Herbert, who runs a property management company, said he couldn’t vote to essentially quadruple commissioner salaries in the same year that the budget proposes raising the city’s property tax rate and utility rates. Herbert said he thought the pay should increase but not by so much at once. He suggested that pay increase by 2.5%, the same overall wage increase the recommended budget proposes for nonunion city staff.
“We make 9,000 bucks per year — I get it, that’s kind of a joke,” Herbert said. “That’s not why any of us do it and that shouldn’t be why any of us do it in the future.”
The position of city commissioner is a part-time position. The commission meets for several hours the first three Tuesdays of each month, and commissioners also spend time outside City Hall to review agenda materials ahead of meetings. Commissioners did not discuss how many hours they typically spend per week on city business, nor did any commissioners suggest they thought the position should be considered full time.
Other commissioners said they needed to consider the consequences of offering such pay for commissioners. Buschkoetter later told the Journal-World that salaries for commissioners had not increased since 1999. At that time, salaries were increased to $9,000 for commissioners and $10,000 for the mayor, and those salaries remain in place today. She said an ordinance was adopted in January 2014 to increase salaries but that it was repealed before it was ever implemented.
Vice Mayor Jennifer Ananda, who also works full time as Title IX coordinator at Emporia State University, said that paying commissioners $9,000 per year limited who was willing to run. Ananda said she realized it was an unsavory position to push for raises for the commission but that only offering $9,000 cut out a large swath of the community from running for the commission.
“I think if we’re able to offer a wage that would allow more representative leadership in the community, that’s something that we can consider,” Ananda said.
Commissioner Leslie Soden, a part-time Uber driver, also said the commission has to pay people appropriately but that perhaps the commission should consider stepping up the pay over several years.
Commissioner Stuart Boley, a retired tax auditor, said that while he was also concerned about the proposed increase in the property tax rate, if the commission views the position as simply volunteer work, it excludes a significant portion of the community. He said the low pay runs the risk of having a government that’s “of the comfortable, by the comfortable, for the comfortable.”
“That’s something, as we increasingly talk about equity in our community, we need to be cognizant of,” Boley said.
Mayor Lisa Larsen, a retired geologist, also agreed, saying that a person shouldn’t have to be put in a difficult financial situation or have to hold a full-time job to be able to be on the commission.
“It’s important to get full public input from all of our citizens, not just those who can afford to run,” Larsen said.
Markus is proposing a recommended operating budget of about $236 million that includes a 0.5-mill property tax hike and increases in water, solid waste and stormwater rates. The property tax rate increase would help fund, among other things, the first across-the-board wage increase that most city employees have seen in years. The increase would amount to about a $12 increase in annual property taxes on a $200,000 home. The utility rate increases would amount to a $78 increase for the average resident. Taken together, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay about $90 more in 2020, amounting to an overall increase of about 4.7%.
The commission did not have a consensus on what the salary increase for commissioners should be, but the topic was one of several added to a list of budget elements to study and bring back to the commission for further discussion during the budget process.