Is pay keeping some off council?

Would the Homer City Council get more middle-income residents, parents and small-business owners running for office if it increased the stipend for serving? 

In introducing an ordinance that would increase a council member’s pay from $50 to $150 a month, council member Beau Burgess made that argument for why he thinks the pay rate should go back to what it was in 2006.

“I have repeatedly, more than a dozen times, gotten feedback from candidates that the reason they do not want to be here is because they are full-time (working) people with kids,” Burgess said in the committee of the whole portion of Monday’s meetings. “They cannot afford to contribute to a city service activity that takes 20 to 30 hours a month to do well.”

Ordinance 14-17 initially had been on the consent agenda to be introduced, but Mayor Beth Wythe pulled it. 

The ordinance also would raise the mayor’s pay from $75 a month to $200 a month. The council then voted 4-2 to introduce the ordinance, with council members Burgess, Barbara Howard, Francie Roberts and David Lewis voting yes and Gus VanDyke and Bryan Zak voting no. 

Howard said she was not sure she would vote “yes” on enacting the stipend increase, but felt it had enough merit to at least be introduced. The ordinance comes up for second reading and public hearing at the council’s May 12 regular meeting.

Wythe made it clear she opposed increasing the council and mayor’s salaries.

“At no surprise to anyone sitting here, I am adamantly opposed to increasing council compensation,” Wythe said at the committee of the whole meeting. “I consider it a privilege and an honor to serve.”

VanDyke agreed with Wythe.

“I think a council member’s job is an honor to serve the community,” he said.

Wythe didn’t even like the word “salary” in the ordinance, saying that implied an employee situation. Burgess introduced and the council agreed to an amendment changing “salary” to “stipend.”

The idea of the stipend isn’t to give a council member or mayor an income, Wythe said.

“The intent was it’s the amount you could hire a babysitter so you could come to the council meeting,” she said.

The ordinance also would come with a catch: council members only get paid if they show up at meetings and participate, Burgess said. Members who don’t want to accept the stipend also can donate it back to the city general fund or designate a charity of their choice. Wythe balked at that idea.

“To have the city acting as your benefactor and accountant to donate to the nonprofit of your choice is an inappropriate use of staff time,” she said.

Roberts also spoke in favor of the ordinance. She said it’s important to acknowledge people serving on the council spend a lot of time doing so. In addition to council duties of at least two meetings a month, the council also serves as the Board of Adjustment to consider planning and zoning appeals and the Board of Ethics to consider ethics complaints.

“There’s a lot of cost incurred in this,” Roberts said of serving on the council. “I don’t think $25 reimburses you for a meeting that starts at 4 p.m. and ends at 9:30 at night.”

Speaking at the Committee of the Whole meeting, former council member Kevin Hogan, who had established a reputation as a fiscal conservative when he served, supported the stipend raise.

“It’s way too little,” he said of the current rate. “The council members need to be compensated fairly. There’s a lot of waste in this city. You guys aren’t one of them.”

In comparison, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly gets a monthly allowance of $400 per member and $500 for the president, mileage for travel, a vehicle allowance of $150 or $250 for members representing the south and east peninsula, a $25 per month Internet allowance, portable computers and health and life insurance at the same level as department heads. Health insurance costs about $18,600 a year per member. The assembly considered changing its compensation at its April 15 meeting, but that ordinance failed.

Homer City Council members and the mayor used to be able to contribute to the Public Employees Retirement System and receive benefits, but that was eliminated. Council members and the mayor are not eligible for city health insurance.

The proposed stipend increase would be an amendment to the 2014 general fund budget. Howard questioned if the stipend raise should apply to sitting members.

“It’s been my experience the sitting board does not give itself a raise,” she said.

“I will give my stipend back to the city until we get a new budget cycle just to prove it’s not about me,” Burgess said in reply.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.