City council members in Colorado Springs have full-time jobs — they attend hundreds of meetings, serve on committees, meet with constituents and plan the city’s future.
And in Colorado Springs, they have an additional duty: serving as the board of directors for Colorado Springs Utilities, a $1 billion city enterprise.
What do they get paid for handling both of these vital jobs? $6,250 — so little that it’s almost an insult.
In other cities, being a city councilor is a full-time job that comes with a full-time salary.
It’s no accident that the majority of city councilors are retired military members — they have pensions and are more able to volunteer their time to the city and its issues. They have time to serve on committees dealing with historic preservation, on commissions about the regulation of medical marijuana, on strategic planning boards. They have the time and the financial means to keep fully abreast of what’s going on at the Urban Renewal Authority, at Colorado Springs Utilities, at the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority, with the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Regional Business Alliance and the planning commission.
In the nation’s largest cities, councilors get paid — and in some of them, they get paid well. In Los Angeles, for example, city councilors earn $178,789 according to a 2011 Pew Research study. The average council salary in Philadelphia is $121,107, fourth-highest out of the 15 councils studied.
A National League of Cities study showed that city councilors in only 2 percent of small cities (population 25,000 to 70,000) and 7 percent of medium-sized cities (70,000 to 200,000) receive $20,000 or more in salaries.
But Colorado Springs is no longer a small city.
Among those from large cities (200,000 and up), three-quarters of councilors receive $20,000 or more in annual compensation.
It’s time Colorado Springs was governed like the large city it is, with the kind of representation that can propel it into the future. As the city has grown, so have the responsibilities of its governing body. We can no longer afford to rely only on those of independent means to provide our governance — there simply aren’t enough different voices in that demographic to reasonably represent Colorado Springs’ increasingly diverse population.
If we pay city councilors a living wage — say $54,000 a year, the city’s median income — then we effectively open the election to people with varied backgrounds.
Councilors who have small-business backgrounds, schoolteachers, young professionals, single moms, academics, welders, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders can join retired military members on council to form a more representative mix of ages and life experiences.
While we started off on the right path with the strong-mayor system, providing a CEO-like figure to oversee city staff and operations, we need to include a strong council to act as a legislative body.
Increasing pay can make that happen. We can provide a solid, innovative city government from the executive branch to the legislative branch.
We’ve been lucky to have many solid, forward-thinking leaders serving as city councilors, but not all of them have always acted in the city’s best interests.
After all, sometimes you get what you pay for.