Salt Lake City Council considers changes to its own pay for the first time in nearly four decades

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune ) The City County Building on June 28, 2018.

It was an “awkward conversation,” but the Salt Lake City Council began the process Tuesday of deciding whether to raise its own part-time pay beyond yearly annual cost-of-living increases for the first time in 37 years.

While the body made no decisions, the members who spoke on the issue during the council’s work session expressed support for bringing the current salary up from $26,291 — a change Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall said would address an equity and diversity issue.

“As I’ve looked forward to my time not being on the council, when I’m finished on my term, and talked to several people in my community in District 5 who I think would be fantastic replacements and encouraged them to run for office, I’ve had several people come back to me and say, ‘I really would like to but my family can’t afford for me to do that with the time that it takes to serve in office,’” she said.

Without a fair salary, she said, council representation may be limited to those from higher income brackets — effectively decreasing the diversity of the body.

Council salaries were initially meant to match the mayor’s in a 4-to-1 ratio, with council members expected to spend about 10 hours a week on their duties.

Within the past eight years, a previous council turned down a proposal to increase the council’s salary and never reconsidered the issue. And the political awkwardness of raising your own salary means the council’s pay has lost pace with its full-time mayor’s, which has increased at a rate 97 percent faster than the council’s since the city’s form of government changed in 1979.

But the expectations of the council have changed drastically over the years, said Cindy Gust-Jenson, the executive director of the City Council, during a presentation on the pay increase. The number of community councils in most districts has ballooned, council members are expected to sit on multiple boards and new challenges posed by growth, the inland port and homelessness issues take increased amounts of time.

“In the face of the switch from evening to daytime and evening meetings, additional community organizations to coordinate with, more complexity in collaborating with other entities, and increasing council member responsibility in representing the city with regional and state entities, council members are dedicating more time than they did in the early years of this form of government,” city documents conclude.

If the council were to bring the salaries in line with the previously established ratio, that would mean a $9,450 increase for each of the seven representatives. And even that, Mendenhall said, would be undercutting the amount of work the council does.

The council members didn’t indicate they were looking to necessarily make that increase — they could increase the salaries more or less — but indicated they will likely wait to give further details about specific numbers until after hearing from residents on the issue at a planned Dec. 11 public hearing.