Members of Battle Ground City Council vote in a pay increase

The increase puts them in line with Camas and Vancouver when it comes to city council member compensation

BATTLE GROUND — “There’s never a good time to discuss compensation.”

That’s Battle Ground Mayor Mike Dalesandro responding to criticism over a 5-1 vote by members of the city council this past Monday to authorize their own pay raise. Outgoing Councilor Steven Phelps was the lone no vote, with Councilor Brian Munson absent.

Battle Ground City Council. File photo by Chris Brown
Battle Ground City Council. File photo by Chris Brown

“The way our state is structured, and the way that we have our code structured in the city, council is the one that discusses compensation and would approve compensation,” added Dalesandro.

There were no public comments against the salary increase. While all the rules were followed, Dalesandro did admit that there likely hadn’t been a lot of time for people to notice and register the addition to the council’s agenda.

“It was something that was brought up by Deputy Mayor (Shane) Bowman, and I’ve done that with other issues in the past with council members when they want to bring something up,” says Dalesandro, noting that they made sure to follow city rules when it came to proper notice and a chance for people to weigh in. “There’s always the potential that people are going to be upset about it, or say ‘why are you doing this?'”

Under the raise passed this week, council members will see a pay increase from the current $600 a month to $900. The deputy mayor will make $1,000, and the mayor will earn $1,100 monthly. But those increases will not apply for every member of the council right away.

“For me, I won’t see a bump in pay,” says Dalesandro.

Currently, council members whose term ends this year are making $400 a month. Councilors with a term ending in 2021 earn $600 a month, and the mayor earns $750 a month.

There are three council seats up for election this year. Shane Bowman, deputy mayor, is running unopposed. Philip Johnson, the current Position 7 council member, is running against Joshua VanGelder. Shauna Walters and Neil Butler are facing off for Position 3, which is being left vacant by the retirement of Phelps.

City Manager Erin Erdman says there is still some work being done to figure out the bottom line cost of the pay increases. Since Battle Ground City Council elects the mayor and deputy mayor, someone currently on the council could be eligible for the pay increase if their title or position changed. So, technically, up to five of the council members could move to the new compensation schedule next year.

Phelps, who is not running for re-election, said he felt the pay increase looked bad in light of the city’s plan to seek approval from voters to annex fire services into Clark County Fire District 3. If approved, that move is expected to raise property taxes for citizens within the city, though a utility rate decrease has been discussed as a way to offset some of that.

“This gives them a tool to say ‘no,’” Phelps said of the pay raise. “It just does not look good.”

Councilor Adrian Cortes agreed that he had concerns over the potential for people to use the pay raise as a reason to vote against the annexation plan, but noted that he recently paid $140 per night out of pocket to attend a conference in Washington D.C. on behalf of the city, and has taken extra time off from his job as a teacher in order to attend city functions.

“And I knew fully what I was getting into when I ran, now serving my second term,” Cortes added. “But there is something wrong when … you can have a high schooler flipping burgers making more than a council member that’s running city.”

Dalesandro says Bowman was the one to bring up the idea of a pay increase during a conversation early last week. He made the decision to add it to Monday’s council docket due to the fact that it would have to be approved at least 30 days before the general election in order for new council members to benefit from the increase.

“What we agreed upon Monday night is very similar to Camas,” says Dalesandro, noting that it’s a bit higher, but Camas links council pay increases to the cost of living index. “So this doesn’t go into full effect until 2022, if you will, for all the positions. By the time we get to that point it’s very (likely) Camas is going to be around that $900 mark that we put council at.”

Dalesandro also noted that Ridgefield’s mayor currently makes $1,000 per month, for a city that is currently a third of the size of Battle Ground.

According to Dalesandro, even fully implemented, the new council pay scale will account for less than a percent of the city’s overall budget. He and Bowman said they hope that investment will mean more working class people decide to run for council seats.

During Monday’s meeting Bowman noted that, prior to this year with the gun rights issue driving interest in council seats, races had gone unopposed for the past three years.

“We’re trying to get the new group of people in here,” said Bowman. “And nobody wants to come and spend their Monday nights, twice a month, and then spend their Wednesday night, and their Tuesday afternoon, and their weekends in budget meetings, and take that time away from their families when they’re not being compensated for it.”

Bowman said he was told the current base pay compensation for a council member in Battle Ground, divided by the number of hours they generally spend on city business, amounted to approximately $9.13 per hour.

“So you’re not even making minimum wage,” Bowman said.

“Just having conversations with people out there, they think that city council members are full-time employees sometimes, you know, that we make a lot more money than we make,” said Dalesandro. “And as the mayor, of course, I get that a lot.”

While it’s not his full-time job, Dalesandro said he does spend about 20 hours per week, on average, serving in his role as mayor, and often upwards of 30 hours. Other council members said they routinely spend more than eight hours per week in their official positions.

“The job has changed … since I’ve been on council, and what we’re doing and how we’re getting in more specialized roles and spending more time in more meetings,” says Dalesandro. “That, to me, is a good reason to take a look at this and say ‘OK, we need to make that adjustment.'”

Battle Ground City Council last voted to approve a pay increase by $200 in October of 2017. Positions 2, 3, and 7 are still at $400 a month, since those increases weren’t slated to go into effect until the beginning of next year. The most recent council raise before that was in 2007.

Healthcare vote

Council had previously instructed Erdman to look into the budget impact of allowing council members to opt into the city’s healthcare plan. That option was rolled into Monday’s salary vote.

Following the passage of that ordinance, Erdman said they’ll work with their insurance underwriter and Kaiser to determine what kind of plan council members would have access to.

“We are assuming that’s going to be very similar to what we currently offer for our non-represented employees, but we don’t know that for sure,” says Erdman. “We also don’t know for sure exactly who on the council is going to take that benefit.”

Assuming the “worst case,” in which every council member signed their entire family up for the plan, Erdman says the budget hit could be around $175,000 a year, though she anticipates the actual amount will be less than that.

Comparison to other cities

Once fully rolled out, the council compensation could put Battle Ground’s mayor third, behind Vancouver and Camas, in monthly compensation. 

“We’re not doing this because of the money, we’re doing this because we want to serve,” said Dalesandro. “What weighed on me the most in this conversation, thinking about this the last week or so, was future councils and who can serve. I want to see more working class young families, those types of people serving on city council because that’s the demographic of Battle Ground. And the more fair compensation there is, it gives them the opportunity to say ‘you know what? It is worth that sacrifice for me to be able to step away from family, step away from some other obligations, to serve my community.’”

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