Lake Elmo council OKs own pay increase

The topic of council compensation is one that Lake Elmo City Council members necessarily discuss with care and trepidation.

After all, politicians - even at the local level - do not want to be perceived as being “in it for the money.” But with most Minnesota City Councils pulling in much less than $5,000 a year in what is closer to a stipend than a salary, it seems unlikely that these civil servants could be accused of being overpaid.

Nevertheless, the issue often raises a few eyebrows when it is listed on the agenda for City Council meetings, particularly when it comes time for that compensation to possibly be increased. And, despite the delicacy of the topic, that is precisely what the Lake Elmo City Council voted in favor of on July 19, with Finance Director Tom Bouthilet’s recommendation.

Even though the council unanimously agreed that Bouthilet should draft the ordinance that would increase each council member’s yearly pay by $725 and the mayor’s by $883, perhaps the more interesting figures are where the city ranks among similarly populated Minnesota cities for council compensation and how many years it has been since an increase has been approved.

“The mayor or the City Council has not received an increase in over five years,” Bouthilet said during the meeting. “I would like to see a little more consistency (with other cities’ compensation).”

Actually, it has been eight years since any council members’ pay has been bumped. And, when compared with the 10 other cities Bouthilet listed on his resolution boasting similar populations, Lake Elmo falls near the bottom end of the pay scale ranking ninth out of 11 cities. Currently, Mayor Dean Johnston is paid $2,900 a year for his service to Lake Elmo and the other four council members make only $2,300.

Johnston told the council he felt the low pay was becoming a “disincentive” for campaigning.

“Most people recognize it as a form of community service,” the mayor said later. “But if it’s going to cost you money out of pocket, there are people who simply say, ‘I don’t want to have to pay to run for office.’”

Johnston explained that council members are not reimbursed for gas mileage to meetings either in or out of the city nor can they accept a gift of more than $5 as prohibited by state statute.

He offered the example of Council Member Anne Smith who, because of her husband’s scattered work schedule, often has to pay for babysitters during council meetings - a necessity that has increased of late with all of the special meetings called to resolve the city’s comprehensive plan dispute with the Metropolitan Council.

“It’s not a big deal, but it all adds up,” Johnston said.

During the council discussion, however, it seemed at first that at least one other representative disagreed. Steve DeLapp asserted that he felt the low wages helped to keep public officials in office. Though he ultimately supported the increase, DeLapp hypothesized that Lake Elmo residents enjoy reasonable tax rates in part, perhaps, because of the city’s frugalness in areas like council compensation.

“I’ll vote for it, but I think we need to set an example at the top,” he said.

DeLapp also used the opportunity to attack Johnston for what he believed was questionable campaign financing last fall for then Council Member Johnston’s successful bid to replace Lee Hunt as mayor.

DeLapp admitted that the allegations were based on rumors he had heard from ousted council member Sue Dunn and Johnston dismissed the issue as unfounded and irrelevant to the discussion.

Although an ordinance must still be drafted, the council gave preliminary approval to an increase that would bring the mayor’s pay up to $3,783 yearly and other council members’ compensation to $3,025. Those figures are still below the average salaries among the comparable cities on Bouthilet’s list: $3,982 for mayors and $3,184 for council members.

In addition, the increase - once approved - would not take effect until 2007, ensuring that this particular council would not automatically benefit pending the result of elections between now and then.

The other cities included on Bouthilet’s list ranged in population from 9,890 (Little Canada) to 7,290 (Oak Grove) with Lake Elmo listed at 7,666. Incidentally, Oak Grove, in Anoka County, also topped the list for highest council pay providing $6,723 for its mayor and $6,082 for each of its council members. At the bottom of the list was Mahtomedi (population: 8,050) paying only $2,400 to its mayor and $1,800 to its council members.

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