Meridian is the second-largest city in Idaho and the fifth-fastest growing city in the country, but its wages for City Council members are among the lowest in the Treasure Valley.
Meridian City Council members are paid $10,000 a year and haven’t approved a raise for themselves since 2015, when the city had 23,370 fewer people than it does today. The council meets four times a month, twice as often as most local cities.
The time commitment of council members has increased as the city’s population grows. Even after moving from four to six members in 2013, City Council President Joe Borton said the expectations of each member have expanded with the number of land-use matters, and city and community presentations and reports.
The council historically has met three Tuesdays a month at 6 p.m. and one Tuesday at 3 p.m., but that’s changing. From this week forward, the council will meet at 4:30 p.m. four Tuesdays a month for a premeeting workshop to hear department reports, community presentations, and other matters not related to land use. Each workshop will be followed by the council’s 6 p.m. regular meeting, when council can focus on things like development applications and public hearings.
Borton pioneered the new meeting schedule, believing it will help council avoid midnight meetings and give city staff a designated time to present so they don’t have to stay hours to make a 15-minute presentation. The new format will also give the council one more regular meeting a month, providing more time to work through the growing list of development applications.
Councilman Ty Palmer, a young father who works at a loan company, worries the new afternoon meeting hours could discourage young, working-class professionals from running.
“Most the people my age, late 20s to early 30s, are fairly fresh out of school establishing themselves in their employment with little wiggle room to request such drastic accommodations of their employer,” he told the Meridian Press in an email. As it is, Palmer said he’ll stay up some Friday nights, getting just two or three hours of sleep so he can have a full weekend with his family and still be prepared for the Tuesday meeting.
Increasing the salary of council members could help encourage young professionals to run, Palmer said, noting that the salary of each member should be enough to cover some of the time commitment of the position. A salary of $12,000 to $12,500 would be more appropriate, he said.
“The reality is, the position requires a level of work commensurate with far more than $10,000 per year,” Palmer said via email.
Many council members estimate they put in 15 to 20 hours a week, and they agree they’re not in it for the money. But with three City Council seats on the ballot this year, and no incumbent seeking reelection, Palmer worries the demands of the afternoon meeting format will hinder newcomers from running. Of the potential candidates he’s spoken with, Palmer said “each one of them was upset about the adjustment and said it would make it more difficult and would be a factor in their decision to run or not, though none said it was a complete deal-breaker.”
Palmer, who at 28 in 2016 became one of the youngest council members in Meridian’s history, said he’s not running again because he wants to spend more time with his family. Two other council seats will be on the November ballot: Genesis Milam’s, who also isn’t running again so she can spend time with family, she said, and Anne Little Roberts, who is running for mayor.
So far, two people have announced their plans to run for council: Meridian Planning and Zoning Commissioner Jessica Perreault and former City Councilman Brad Hoaglun.
Meridian City Council reviews the mayor and council salaries every municipal election year. A committee of at least five residents, business leaders, and former city officials researches the salaries of other cities and recommends to council what Meridian’s should be, city attorney Bill Nary said. The committee is slated to recommended council and mayor salaries to the council later this month, he said.
During the latest election cycle in 2017, council declined to approve raises, though the committee recommended a 3% raise in 2018 and 2019. If council had approved the recommendation, each member’s salary would have been $10,609 in 2019. The council last approved raises for council members in 2015, from $9,500 a year to $10,000. Before that, the council approved a raise of $9,000 to $9,500 in 2014, and from $8,000 to 9,000 in 2007. The council president makes more, currently at $11,000. The Meridian mayor is paid $90,956.
Over the same period of time, many other local cities have been steadily increasing council salaries. In 2018, Eagle City Council increased council salaries from $9,937 to the current $12,000. In 2017, Garden City increased salaries from $9,000 to $10,200. Boise has already passed an ordinance that will increase council salaries to $27,223 starting Jan. 1, 2021. That’s up from $19,375 in 2013.
Meridian has an estimated population of roughly 114,000, compared to Eagle’s 31,000, Garden City’s 12,000, and Boise’s 236,000.
NOT IN IT FOR THE PAY
Holli Woodings was elected to Boise City Council in January 2018. She said she averages about 20 hours of work a week, including time outside of meetings.
Woodings said compensation was not something she thought about when running for council. She and her husband run a software compare called MetaGeek. Woodings said she believes Boise council members are compensated fairly for the “part-time job we have.” Boise City Council meets four times a month like Meridian City Council, but the council starts its workshop meetings at 3:30 or 4 p.m. depending on the week — a half-hour to an hour earlier than Meridian.
Woodings was not part of the budget conversations that increased the council’s salary over the coming years; however, she said if council were increasing its hours like Meridian is, she would expect compensation to match that.
Milam said Meridian City Council has rejected the small salary increase that is recommended because “none of us do this for the money.”
Milam said it’s difficult for elected officials like herself to give themselves a pay increase because they want the city to know they are good stewards. That said, because council has refused the small recommended $500-a-year salary increases, the city has fallen behind its neighbors, Milam said.
Regardless, “it shouldn’t be a good-paying job because we don’t want people to do it for the money,” Milam said. “I don’t know that what we do should have anything to do with what other cities are doing.”
Meridian City Council Vice President Luke Cavener said he didn’t want compensation to prevent someone from running, but “my whole piece is I don’t want city council to be someone’s job.”
“We have a full-time elected official in the mayor,” he said.
Cavener said he’d keep an open mind about what the committee recommends in June.
Borton, who was first elected in 2006, said historically many of the council members he first served with — like Keith Bird and Charlie Rountree — passed on a philosophy that focuses on service to the community — considering the stipend an afterthought.
That said, as the workload of each member increases, not raising members’ salaries can create challenges, he said.
“We want to attract qualified candidates,” Borton said.
Palmer said the salaries that each member gets alone — not including the benefits they receive — represents the annual property tax of 20 Meridian families.
“We can’t take that lightly,” Palmer said. “None of us take the job for the income supplement. We take the job to serve.”
Meridian has a total city budget of $103.5 million, with $65.3 million of that in the general fund.
BEING ON COUNCIL
Council meetings may take up three to five hours a week, Palmer said, but other responsibilities and time commitments come with the job.
“To do the job right,” Palmer said, it takes extra time helping constituents, fulfilling his liaison duties to city departments and public committees, and studying the agenda items ahead of each meeting. All of this takes him about 10 to 15 hours a week.
Cavener said his time commitment varies from “week to week and month to month.” When he was first elected, Cavener said he was putting in 40 hours a week, meeting with directors and stakeholders to learn as much as he could about land use and the city. Now he said he spends between five and 20 hours.
Cavener is the Idaho government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. When the Idaho Legislature is in session, he works close to 60 to 70 hours a week, he said, not including his council responsibilities. Cavener said being a member of council takes up the time that used to be his “fun activity time.”
“I don’t watch TV, I don’t play golf,” he said. “I have such joy and appreciation for the city. I love our community, and being able to be involved in keeping it a great place is something I really enjoy.”
Palmer said it’s “definitely difficult” to balance to the needs of his job as chief risk officer at Capital Auto Loan with the time commitment of being a council member, husband and father.
“The company I work for has grown by leaps and bounds, and I’m working no less than 60 hours per week there, while still never missing a council meeting — other than occasional vacations — and generally fulfilling the other responsibilities of the position,” he said.
Palmer said he believes something will be lost if the new meeting format or small compensation keeps people from running for city council. He said those voices help make decisions that will affect “the ability of someone who was raised in Meridian to stay here while they transition to stable adulthood.”