Denver municipal elections are still months away, but no matter which candidates win city office this year, they’re likely to get a significant pay raise.
A Denver City Council committee voted unanimously last week to advance a proposal to give a 10 percent salary increase — the maximum amount allowed by law — to each of the city’s elected officers, including councilmembers themselves. If passed by the full council, the raises would take effect once a new city government is sworn in this summer.
Under the proposed ordinance, the mayor’s salary would gradually rise from $171,197 this year to $188,488 by 2022, while city council salaries would bump up to $101,198 from their current $91,915. The city’s auditor, the clerk and recorder, and the president of the city council would all get similar raises.
How would those salaries compare to what elected officials in other cities make? It’s complicated.
Municipal government structures can vary widely from city to city, so measuring local elected officials against their counterparts across the country isn’t always an apples-to-apples comparison. Many U.S. cities, for example, operate under a council-manager system, in which the mayor’s power is limited and most executive functions are carried out by a city manager appointed by councilmembers. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock made almost three times as much as Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings last year, but Rawlings’s position is mostly ceremonial, and he's compensated accordingly.
For a better comparison, we can look at how Denver stacks up against other cities with so-called “strong mayor” governments, in which the mayor is the head of a sprawling, powerful executive branch. The ten strong-mayor cities that are closest to Denver in population pay their chief executives an average of about $193,000 — slightly more than the $188,488 proposed by the new pay scale.
When it comes to city councils, comparisons get a bit trickier. Council positions can be full-time or part-time depending on the city — but the distinction isn’t always expressly spelled out by law, and some “full-time” councilmembers have other jobs while “part-time” councilmembers can work long hours.
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A seatt on the Denver City Council is considered a full-time position, though several members did report additional sources of income on their most recent financial-disclosure statements. Bumping their salary up to over $100,000 would put them on the higher side for city councils nationwide, but still short of peer cities like Seattle ($129,685) and San Francisco ($121,606).
Although they’re arguably the most powerful employees of Denver’s city government, the mayor and other elected officials aren’t the highest-paid, or even close to it. More than eighty city employees made more than Hancock did last year, including the mayor’s chief of staff, Alan Salazar, who out-earned his boss by more than $4,000. The city’s highest-paid employee in 2018 was chief medical examiner Dr. James Caruso, who earned $288,925, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Compensation for elected officials is often a fraught subject, since the power to raise salaries generally rests with those who stand to benefit. Local governments use a wide range of procedures to determine salaries for public office; some have established independent compensation commissions, while in others salaries can only be increased by popular vote. Since 2003, Denver's City Charter has directed councilmembers to pass an ordinance setting new salaries at the end of every four-year election cycle.
Maybe the inherent awkwardness of such an ordinance is why city leaders also made sure last week to announce that they aren't the only city employees likely to be getting raises soon. On Thursday, Hancock and City Councilwoman Robin Kniech stood beside labor organizers to unveil a plan to gradually increase the minimum wage for city employees and contractors to $15 an hour by 2021. Both pay raises — for elected officials and for nearly 2,000 minimum-wage municipal workers — will have to be approved by Denver City Council next month.