Aspen city staff has prepared an updated salary chart comparing local elected officials’ compensation to other Colorado towns and western ski resorts. The issue was last discussed in March, just before the COVID-19 crisis created a budget shortfall for the city and nearly all other sectors in the valley. Council will begin its budget talks this week leading into 2021.
An updated matrix provided this week by Aspen City Manager Sara Ott shows Aspen at No. 4 in terms of public servants’ compensation among comparable communities. However, in a memo to council, Ott wrote that comparing salaries comes with many asterisks.
“While these communities are similar to Aspen in many respects, each community has a distinctive character that makes it unique,” the memo states.
For many towns in Colorado, including Aspen, the mayor and council are tasked with overseeing legislation and the hiring and firing of city managers. But home rule keeps them from having direct involvement with city budgets and personnel.
“The Aspen City Charter specifies that the Mayor is ‘recognized as the head of government for all ceremonial and legal purposes and he or she shall execute and authenticate legal instruments requiring his or her signature as such official,” the memo explains.
Locally, the mayor serves a similar role to city council members, with the added responsibility of setting council agendas. It is not an executive role within the municipality as it is in other states, however.
“The vast majority of municipalities in Colorado view the Office of Mayor as a part time position,” the memo states.
The tasks of overseeing day-to-day operations for local government falls on the city manager in Aspen. Ott has been in that role for one year, following drama that led to the departures of her predecessor, city manager Steve Barwick and assistant city manager Barry Crook.
“The City Manager is responsible for all personnel functions, developing an annual budget, reporting financial conditions on a routine basis, supervising and directing the various departments and managing the day to day affairs of the City,” the memo explains.
This differs from resort towns in which council members get paid above and beyond Aspen’s rates, such as Ketchum, Idaho and Moab and Park City, Utah, where the mayor also serves as the city’s chief executive.
The comparison of nearly 30 Colorado town and western resorts shows that Aspen pays its mayor $2,325 a month and city council members earn $1,700 per month. Snowmass Village, just behind Aspen in terms of its pay scale,, pays its mayor $2,200 a month and its council members $1,700 a month, according to the analysis.
Not only does the type of governmental authority make it difficult to compare the salaries of elected officials, the benefits package further complicates things. In Aspen, elected officials are provided with health, life, dental and vision insurance — all of which are known to be among the costliest in the state.
In 2019, as the majority of the Aspen City Council was vacating their seats, a provision calling for higher salaries was presented to the body. However, the members did not vote on the measure at the time.
Elected officials cannot vote to increase their own salaries during their terms, only to increase the future salaries of council members, be it themselves or others.
On March 9, one day after the first confirmed COVID-19 case hit Aspen, council discussed higher compensation during a work session. Since then, the budget of the government and the businesses community that supports the government’s taxes have all decreased.
While higher than expected tourism numbers kept Aspen afloat this summer, the city’s budget remains below predicted numbers coming into 2020.
The salary comparison chart was calculated for information only at this time, and is not scheduled to be discussed by council in the near future.