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Understanding elected official compensation in the wake of pay raise controversy

Apr 04, 2018 03:52PM ● Published by Justin Adams

The salaries of most of the mayors within Salt Lake County as of July 1, 2017. There is a clear distinction in pay between mayors in cities with a council-manager form of government (part-time) and mayors in cities with a council-mayor form of government (full-time).

“A witch hunt.” “A failure on many levels.” “An unfortunate situation.” 

Those are the terms used to describe a controversy that came to a conclusion at a Sandy City Council meeting on Feb. 27. A few weeks prior, KUTV reported that Sandy’s recently-elected mayor, Kurt Bradburn, had given himself a $15,000 raise during his first month in office. 

The news resulted in a firestorm of social media backlash—KUTV’s post on Facebook garnered 72 (mostly) angry comments—resulting in an announcement by Bradburn that he would take a pay cut instead.

The city of Sandy appeared ready to move past the controversy at the Feb. 27 council meeting. Most of the residents who spoke as well as the city council expressed continued trust in the mayor. The city council also passed a resolution that codified mayoral compensation, meaning that the Sandy mayor will no longer be responsible for setting his or her own salary.

The resolution also included an increased commitment to transparency. As suggested by Councilman Zach Robinson, the city will begin disclosing both the mayor’s and the city councilors’ salaries in the city’s budget.

“If we’re going to publish the mayoral ranges, I’d recommend that we publish the council ranges as well. I feel that would be an open and transparent communication from us to our citizens,” said Robinson.

Part of the reason for the public outcry about the mayor’s self-appointed raise is a lack of public understanding about how local elected officials are compensated. In response to a query on social media concerning this subject, respondents who live along the Wasatch Front said by and large that they weren’t quite sure how much their mayor was paid, but guessed anywhere in a range from $10,000 to $50,000. 

While some mayors’ paychecks do fall within this range, there are many others who are paid two or three times that amount.

According to the report by KUTV, Bradburn’s initial salary when he took office was $147,000, meaning the raise would have brought him up to $162,000. That would have been more than double the median household income of Sandy ($76,807) as well as the highest salary of any mayor in the valley, including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

The resolution passed by the Sandy City Council set a minimum mayoral salary of $119,000 and a maximum of $144,000. Those figures were recommended to the council by Mike Applegarth, the council office’s director, who said that the mayor’s compensation should be based on “similarly situated cities” such as Provo or Ogden. In 2017, the mayors of those cities received salaries of $109,500 and $128,699 respectively, according to information from the state of Utah’s public finance website, transparent.utah.gov. 

While the mayor’s new salary of $119,000 is more on par with some of the larger cities along the Wasatch front, it is still near the top of what a municipal mayor can make in the state of Utah.

Of the 15 cities considered for this article (13 Salt Lake County municipalities plus Ogden and Provo) there is a wide range in the amount of money that a mayor is paid. In fact, Salt Lake City Mayor Biskupski made almost 10 times as much money in 2017 ($149,220) as the lowest-paid mayor last year, former Riverton Mayor William Applegarth ($15,521).

Of course, Salt Lake City and Riverton are two completely different cities in a variety of ways. First, Salt Lake City has more than four times the number of residents as Riverton. Secondly, one city’s budget is much larger than the others. Last year, the city of Riverton’s expenses totaled about $30 million, according to the city’s 2017 financial report. Salt Lake City meanwhile, had a budget of over a billion dollars. But the most critical difference between the two cities, at least when it comes to determining mayoral compensation, is form of government.

Utah state code specifies a few different forms of municipal government and the roles and responsibilities of the mayor vary greatly from one to another.

The form of government in which the mayor has the most power and responsibilities is the council-mayor form of government. The cities of Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, Sandy, Murray, South Salt Lake, and Taylorsville fall under this category. Because this form of government places more responsibility on the mayor, the position is well-compensated.

“In our form of government, the mayor position is a full-time position,” said Cherie Wood, the mayor of South Salt Lake. “I’m charged with running the city and we have a multi-million dollar budget and we have 300 plus employees.”

Without an above-average salary, Wood said that the position would not attract candidates who are qualified to manage such a large organization. 

Another problem, according to Mike Applegarth, is that an extremely low salary might exclude all but the “independently wealthy” from running for office. 

In contrast, there are the five-member and six-member council forms of government. Under these forms, the mayor’s principal responsibility is to be the chair of and preside over the city council. The responsibility for the daily administration of the city instead lies with a City Manager. With the decreased responsibility comes a smaller paycheck; in some cities, the mayor even makes less than the city councilors. Holladay, Draper, Midvale, South Jordan, Cottonwood Heights, Herriman, and Riverton fall under these forms of government. 

“You don’t do it for the money, that’s for sure,” said Rob Dahle who is currently the mayor of Holladay, one of the municipalities with a council-manager form of government. According to Dahle, his main role is acting as a spokesman for the city.

“We’re a pretty small municipality and it allows for a citizen mayor where their primary function isn’t to be employed by the city. It’s more of a service,” said Dahle. “These small cities don’t really justify a full-time mayor so that allows any citizen to be able to throw their hat in the ring to run for mayor.”

Dahle said that transparency is the key to avoiding controversies similar to what happened in Sandy. “Whatever you do, you make sure it’s a public process. The mayor should not have unilateral authority to set his own pay. That’s just bad policy,” he said.

When it comes to the compensation of city council members, there isn’t much of a difference between cities of different forms of government. Instead, the principle determinant seems to be population. The highest-paid city councils belong to the cities with the most people such as Salt Lake City, Sandy and Provo The average salary for a city councilor ranges from around $10,000 on the low end (Herriman) to over $40,000 on the high end (Salt Lake City). 

Residents who want to know more about how government entities spend taxpayer money, including employee compensation, can access that information through various online resources such as transparent.utah.gov and utahsright.com. 

As for Bradburn, he’s working to regain the trust of Sandy residents who felt betrayed by his actions, saying on a Facebook post, “I always said when I was campaigning that I was going to make mistakes, but I would always own up to them and fix them when I did. Hope you can still support me as I try to do the best I can while I have the privilege of serving you.”

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