JACKSON, Wyo. — The Jackson town council voted to give themselves or their successors a raise late Monday night.
Presented as Ordinance P in nearly the 4th hour of a government meeting that approached 10 p.m., local elected officials agreed unanimously to boost their pay by 31 percent (to $39,300 for mayor and $32,750 for council).
Mayor Pete Muldoon was quick to point out the pay hike would not take effect for anyone currently in office.
“We cannot vote ourselves a pay raise. We have to wait until we stand for election,” Muldoon said. “I’ll be running for town council in this upcoming election, and if you feel [$32,750] is more than I should make, please vote against me. Maybe somebody else will be running and they can change it back to the old pay.”
Is the timing right?
To some, the timing of the decision is curious. Both the town council meeting and the joint meeting with county commissioners earlier that day were pocked with examples of the governing bodies being unable to conduct business-as-usual sessions given nearly every matter before them paled in comparison to pandemic concerns.
Comp Plan revisions and a Housing Nexus decision were put off due to an uncertain future. A squabble at the Pine Glades development was truncated for time. But time was found for a first reading to make a pay hike a reality for all incoming councilmembers and mayor.
An increase to the compensation of electeds is also one that would appear to be ill-timed given financial concerns over shrinking revenue. With a budget squeezed by ever-growing demand for services, the town is now looking at a severe hit to sales tax revenue in the foreseeable future.
Councilman Arne Jorgensen points out that any fiscal impact would not be realized on the budget until January 2021.
“I would like to reiterate we are in a new world right now in an emergency around COVID,” he said. “We are going to be making very difficult decisions from a budget standpoint. But this is structured by default to not hit the budget immediately. It gives the town plenty of opportunity to make adjustments once we have better sense of budget.”
Town council candidate Devon Viehman, for one, took exception with the timing of the pronouncement.
“While I understand that the salaries have not been increased since 2005, the timing of this seems very inappropriate. Given our economic uncertainty and the fact that locals are struggling, we should be looking to our leadership to tighten the budget, not increase it,” Viehman said. “No one knows what the full impact of COVID-19 will be on our community, so this should be tabled for now and addressed a year from now. When town and county departments are being asked to reduce their budgets, it seems tone deaf for the town council to vote themselves a pay hike.”
On the other hand, the timing makes perfect sense given town leaders have been logging an enormous amount of time dealing with not only the usual weighty planning and development fare, but emergency meetings have become the norm lately with the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Yet, a quick glance at the number of meetings called by the council show a decrease since 2008 when the town met 92 times. Some 84 meetings were convened in 2010, 80 in 2015. In 2019, town council met 76 times.
But councilors agree the job carries more homework than ever before.
“We all know there are times, extraordinary times, when an enormous amount of time and energy goes into working on behalf of the town of Jackson,” Jim Stanford said. “This is a minimum step to account for inflation but it’s far less than what the county commissioners’ compensation is.”
Muldoon agrees, adding, “We spend a lot of time down here. This job can take up immense amounts of your time and amounts of your life. And it’s not just during working hours, it is everywhere you go.”
The how and why of getting there
Stanford broached the topic of a pay raise during a retreat back in January. His main motivation is concern about a segment of the population—particularly a younger demographic—whose voice is being left behind. Anyone involved in the JH hustle to get paper is not likely to be floored by the current wage of civic leaders.
“I know for sure we volunteered for a public service here but I think it’s only fair to increase the compensation enough so that particularly younger members of our community can have the opportunity to participate in their own self-government,” Stanford said.
Muldoon says he’s been advocating that elected officials be better compensated for 10 years—long before he dreamed of running for office.
“It’s been the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had, and it’s not even close,” Muldoon said. “But the necessity for somebody else to have to work a second or third job makes [public service] a very difficult choice for a lot of people in the community. We say to ourselves we want younger people to run for office and get involved, and yet we set the pay structure so that the only people that can really do it are the people who are independently wealthy or retired.”
Councilwoman Hailey Morton Levison said a pay raise is mostly a matter of keeping up with inflation, and something that should be examined as regularly as every four years.
Council and mayor last experienced a salary bump in 2005 when the salary for a councilmember was increased from $150 a meeting to $25,000 a year. The mayor’s pay jumped from $12,000 to $30,000, annually.
Councilman and economist Jonathan Schechter, who made the calculations as to pay increases commensurate with inflation, said the salary bump will provide a sound return on investment.
“I see this as an investment in the community. The larger the crop of people we can draw from the better we are going to be,” Schechter said. “This will help us attract a broader, more diverse and representative segment of our population. It is a modest investment with a huge return line.”
Ordinance P passed unanimously at first reading Monday. It requires three readings to take effect.
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