Why do people want these jobs? We’ll soon be voting for a long list of candidates, with the presidency at the top of the ballot. Our elected leaders have tough jobs – especially now with a raging pandemic, a sinking economy, renewed attention to systemic racism, the West Coast in flames and hurricanes threatening the Gulf Coast. The biggest threat of all – climate change – hardly rates a headline. And as we were reminded last week on the anniversary of 9/11, there are still people in the world who hate Americans.
When we prepare to vote, let’s focus some attention and respect on the offices on the bottom of the ballot – the mayors, city council members, county commissioners and school board members.
Unlike their counterparts in Washington or St. Paul, these officials conduct the public’s business part time and their pay comes nowhere close to covering the time they actually spend. Yet the issues are just as challenging. This summer I’ve watched school board members debate how to balance safely opening school with the economic struggles of parents who can’t work at home. After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, citizens asked their mayors and city councils what’s happening with racial justice in their cities to prevent such a tragedy here. With tax revenues sinking at the same time as more people need the government’s support, these local leaders need to figure out how to pay for the ongoing costs of public safety, roads and teachers while unexpected pandemic expenses pile up.
These public servants don’t do it for the money. While members of the U.S. Senate and House are paid $174,000 a year…a check most of us could survive on…our local leaders make far less.
Last week, St. Joseph’s city staff proposed a new pay structure for that city’s mayor and council members. St. Joseph is the only area city that pays a salary, plus a stipend for attending meetings. To simplify things, the staff proposed a small pay increase and eliminating the stipend. Staff research included what area cities pay their mayors and council members and it’s not much.
St. Joseph’s new pay structure raised the mayor’s monthly pay to $650 and the council members’ pay to $435 with no meeting stipend. Mayor salaries in nearby cities are $600 in Waite Park, $665 in Sauk Rapids and $675 in Sartell. Cold Spring currently pays its mayor $450 but a pay raise to $475 has been proposed. Council members in area cities are paid $300 in Waite Park, $433.33 in Sartell and $475 in Sauk Rapids. Cold Spring proposed raising council members pay from $300 to $325.
I wanted to calculate how much that works out to an hour, so I asked Sartell Mayor Ryan Fitzthum and long-time St. Joseph Mayor Rick Schultz about their work weeks. (City Council member Anne Buckvold is challenging Schultz in the Nov. 3 election.)
Both men attend city council and other meetings such as the Area Planning Organization, city boards and commissions. Outside those set duties, there are emails, phone calls, lobbying at the Legislature, representing the city at events and meeting with constituents and local business owners.
“Being mayor is NOT a turn-it-on, turn- it-off kind of position, like a job,” Schultz told me. “Of course, there are official duties, but you are always mayor, you can’t disappear from being mayor and people recognize you as mayor. The hours never end when you’re in public.”
Fitzthum says he’s at City Hall two to three times a week, answers a dozen or more emails a day as well as returning phone calls.
“I am half-way through my first term as mayor,” Fitzthum said. “I never expected the role would be this time consuming, yet I also never expected it would be nearly as rewarding. I have absolutely loved the community engagement aspect of the job. The mayor could not lead a community without a strong and functioning City Council. While their time commitment is very different of that as the mayor, their importance is equal.”
Shultz didn’t offer a number of hours spent on city business, but Fitzthum estimated about 25 hours a week. So to make the arithmetic easy, let’s go with 20 hours a week. That’s 80 hours a month for an hourly rate of just more than $8. If it’s just about the money, Target’s $15 per hour starting pay would be a better choice.
Shultz made the case for public service and local elected office.
“It’s one of the most enjoyable positions I’ve ever had – knowing I serve something larger. You really have to put your own goals and feelings aside for that of something larger. It’s never been about the pay.”