Whitefish Council Considers Health Insurance, Salaries for Elected Members

At a recent work session, councilors indicated a desire to ease some of the financial barriers preventing younger or working-class community members from running for volunteer public service

By Mike Kordenbrock
Whitefish City Hall. Beacon file photo

The Whitefish City Council directed city staff during a Feb. 5 work session to explore what it would look like for councilors to receive health insurance through the city on the same cost-sharing plan employees benefit from, and to look at drafting language for a possible ballot question which would let voters decide if they want allow members of the council to receive a salary.

Most members of the all-volunteer council who expressed support for examining one or both ideas articulated a desire to ease some of the financial barriers that could be preventing younger or working-class community members from seeking election to the council. There was some questioning among the council about what the public may or may not approve, and what would be appropriate. The council has plans to discuss the possible ballot question at a Feb. 20 work session.

Based on information shared with the council during the work session, Whitefish is one of a limited number of local governments in the state which does not offer compensation to its city council. As part of the agenda packet for the work session, the council was presented with a 2022 wages survey from the Montana League of Cities and Towns (MLCT), which laid out salaries for more than 60 local governments in the state, showing Troy as the only other all-volunteer council.

In nearby Kalispell, the mayor’s annual salary is $9,000, with councilors receiving $5,000 annually, plus annual stipends of $1,800 and $900, respectively. The mayor and council also get free medical and dental coverage, and can add family members for an additional cost.

The 2022 MLCT wage survey reported that Columbia Falls pays its mayor $400, and council members $200.

Although they don’t receive a salary, stipend, or any cost-sharing for health insurance, there are a couple direct financial benefits that members of the Whitefish City Council receive, according to information shared during the work session: a $500 reimbursement is available to offset the purchase of an electronic device like a laptop or tablet used for city business, and then a $150 quarterly payment is available as reimbursement for a personal cell phone plan if a councilor chooses not to use a city cell phone. Councilors also receive a membership to The Wave Aquatic & Fitness Center in Whitefish.

There was little discussion about where exactly the council should look for comparison in trying to determine the terms of compensation, although Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano threw out the examples of Jackson, Wyo., and Ketchum, Idaho, before saying that they should look to communities with similar economies and populations.

In Councilor Frank Sweeney’s view, changes to the health insurance benefit alone would make the most significant difference, and said the council should have taken up the issue a long time ago. But Councilor Rebecca Norton wanted to go further, and alluded to her desire to see the council paid more than the $200 stipend that Sweeney had tossed out as a hypothetical. But Sweeney questioned if voters would back compensation on the level he guessed Norton envisioned.

“If you look at what could possibly get approved by our voters, I think you’re assuming something that I don’t think is there,” Sweeney said in response to Norton.

Currently city councilors can receive health insurance through the city’s program, but under the current plan they pay the full premium for the plan they choose. City employees, on the other hand, pay 13.86% of their health insurance premium, with the city covering the remainder. City Manager Dana Smith estimated that if all seven members of the council were to sign up for health insurance through the city under, for example, a family plan, the annual cost to the city could be in the range of $24,000 to $26,000 per councilor. The current cost for a family plan is $23,667, but Smith based her estimate on likely increases in the coming fiscal year.

City council members’ ability access the city’s health insurance plan with the same cost-sharing as city employees is something that could be enacted through a resolution passed by the council.

“Hands down, we each probably put in 10 hours a week to participate as councilors and mayor. You translate that out over a four-year term and it’s a couple thousand hours,” Mayor John Muhlfeld said, adding that people either take that time out of their personal life, or their work time, or decide not to get involved. The mayor added that he believes they need to be pulling younger people into local government as soon as the next election.

“A lot of younger, working class folks don’t have the benefit of healthcare in town, so I think at a minimum that would be a benefit that we should offer immediately, especially if it doesn’t require going to voters for a charter change,” the mayor said.

Putting in place a salary for the city council would mean going through a multi-step process. A ballot question would need to be put before voters to amend the city charter, which currently has a clause stating that members of the council shall not receive a salary. The same ballot question would also address how salary would be determined. If the council moves forward with drafting and approving a ballot question, the earliest it could be put to voters to decide would be November 2024.

There’s another avenue for instituting a salary for the council—the 10-year- Local Government Review committee, which could recommend the change to the council, but members of the council questioned both the length of time and reliability of that process.

Over the course of the council’s roughly 30-minute discussion of the topic, Councilor Rebecca Norton emerged as one of the strongest voices in favor of paying the council. It’s something she has advocated for in the past, including through the local government review committee.

Norton said that the lack of council pay is something that disproportionately affects working class people. She also shared that she heard support for paying the council while on the campaign trail last year.

“There’s only so many battles we can fight in this city, and I’m just kind of fed up with this one,” Norton said.

Later, when there was some suggestion from Muhlfeld that if the council were to become compensated, they shouldn’t be eligible until the next election cycle, Norton questioned why they should wait.

Muhlfeld explained that he ran knowing that he could do the job without being compensated, but said that he could be convinced otherwise about the timing for when council pay could kick in.

“I wish, in a perfect world, and you’ve always advocated for this Rebecca, this came from the electorate, and not from the council,” Muhlfeld said. “I don’t want the perception out there that we’re advocating for compensation only to receive that compensation during our term.”

“I don’t think anyone in the whole town would ever think that we’re doing this for money,” Norton said later in the discussion. “You know what I mean? It’s so many hours, and so much commitment. But I just think it’s odd that we are the only town in Montana that does not compensate.”

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