Moab City Council approved a “substantial increase” in pay for its members and the city’s mayor starting on Jan. 1.

The council met on Tuesday, May 25, to talk about a proposed ordinance to raise salaries and establish a health benefits package for elected officials in the city’s budget for fiscal year 2019-20.

The proposal was modified with a motion by council member Kalen Jones before being approved by a vote of 4-1.

At the beginning of the discussion, Jones proposed an alternative to the original ordinance on the agenda.

“I just feel that it just seemed a little high,” he said of the proposed pay plan for council members. “It’s subjective, but the proposed pay seems a little high to me for the work that we do.”

“I grant you that the benefits package is a big chunk of change and unfortunately we can’t buy a half a benefits package, we either have to do it or not do it,” said council member Mike Duncan.

Documents shared at the meeting showed that the pay for each council member would be raised starting on July 1 with a 2% cost of living adjustment (COLA). The 2% COLA applied starting on July 1 would leave each council member on track with an annual salary of $9,621 until Dec. 31.

Then, on Jan. 1, in addition to the COLA, $25,193 would be added to each council member’s salary, bringing the total to $34,814 annually.

As the new salary begins on Jan. 1, the fiscal year ends on June 30, so only half of that annual salary is included in the budget 2019-20 budget. The council will have to vote on its budget again in 2020 on its pay plan schedule. Each council member is set to receive $17,407 between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2020.

For the position of mayor, the pay increase was proposed to be raised from $16,216 annually to $41,409, which includes a $25,193 health benefits package.

In total, $215,479 was the annual proposed compensation for all five council members and the mayor with the 2% COLA and the health benefits package.

Jones proposed taking the COLA off the proposed pay raise, an idea that received support from other council members including Duncan.

“For that reason, for the city to raise the total compensation this year looks like a big number,” Duncan said. “But I want to point out that we’re starting off with pretty meager salaries.”

Council member Rani Derasary said voting on the proposal for their own pay raise and without a committee to make recommendations or a vote from the public felt “very awkward.”

“I guess I have a few things to say for people that probably wonder what the heck goes through our minds with this stuff,” Derasary said. “First of all, I would be very happy if the universe shifted and we did not have to vote on this about ourselves because it is very awkward. … it’s definitely self-serving.”

Derasary is one of three council members up for re-election this year.

“I know we can honestly say this is for future councils because it takes effect in January … some folks will still be here, and all of us who are incumbents are running again so we may or may not be here, so I take responsibility for the part of this that recognizes there is definitely a personal advantage to be had here.”

She pointed to the council’s health insurance benefits that ended in 2014. The mayor’s health benefits ended in 2018, she said.

“It makes you think then about the history … to me that made it more defensible in a sense that you’re going back to a benefit that the city was offering and just hasn’t in these last few years,” she said. “We have a lot of unknowns in the budget in the coming years. … Whatever we do for this year may be different a year from now.”

“I’m still having a difficult time justifying it,” council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said. “And (we have) tax issues that we don’t know how it’s going to affect us, and I voted against the budget for this very issue so I’m going to be consistent and vote against it.”

“I am for the proposed budget,” council member Karen Guzman-Newton countered. “As with Mike, I was thinking of taking the COLA portion off of it. COLA is for employees. We’re a different subset of the city. We aren’t employees ...”

“So it seems like we need to separate (the COLA from the budget),” Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said. “Nobody has any problem with the other items for approval. I don’t know if we need to separate or have a motion.”

Guzman-Newton raised the question of whether the council was comfortable with the proposed pay for the Moab City Planning Commission, which would pay commission members $75 for each meeting attended.

“I think if you’re going to use the argument that raising salary is going to attract more qualified or better people to council, you have to apply it to the planning commission,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “I don’t think ($75) is an awful lot to pay for each meeting. I don’t have a problem.”

Duncan then made a motion on the proposed ordinance to adopt the City of Moab pay plan schedule and salaries for fiscal year 2019-20 as it was described in the documents presented at the council meeting, with the exception that the salaries for elected officials do not include a COLA.

Guzman-Newton seconded Duncan’s motion, but the motion failed with Jones, Knuteson-Boyd and Derasary voting against it.

Jones then made a new motion to approve the proposed ordinance but with a modification to reduce the total salary figures. Derasary seconded Jones’ motion.

Jones said that the reduction would modify what was being shown in the document at the meeting, placing the income between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2020, at $15,407 for council members and $18,705 for the mayor, he said. The reduction in pay for council members, and the mayor, would be $4,000 less between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2020, than what was originally proposed.

“It’s still a substantial increase. It includes the health insurance benefit …” Jones said.

“I guess after thinking about it for a long time, I feel like I’ve watched the people here work very hard and I’ve watched a lot of people who may be sicker than they would have been if it wasn’t for the stress of this job,” Derasary said. “… If the majority of people here want to run the experiment of seeing what it’s like to put it back and it has historically been there, I’m willing to do that. If I’m still here next year I want to see where we are in budget because I am kind of concerned about what our budget is going to say next year …”

Guzman-Newton said the budget for the health benefits is less than what was budgeted for health benefits on the councils in 2014 and prior.

“Yes, and health insurance costs substantially more,” Jones said. “We have the option as receiving that as cash. Or if we have a family, if we don’t have a full family, then we pro-rate it.”

Duncan said the budget is a concern and a reduction in elected officials’ salaries in the future is “certainly” possible if budget cuts needs to be made.

Jones’ motion passed with a vote of 4-1, with Knuteson-Boyd raising her hand for the single vote against the pay plan.

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