The Missoula City Council was the best-paid in the state according to a 2016 salary survey. And Mayor John Engen, one of only three full-time mayors in Montana, also topped the list that year with a $7,077 monthly salary.
All received 3.25 percent raises last week in the city's new budget, which provided across-the-board pay boosts for all nonunion city employees.
The increase brought Engen's monthly pay to $7,650. Since being elected mayor in 2006, his salary grew from $70,000 to $91,800 this year, which is a 31 percent increase in 13 years.
Engen makes no apologies for what he calls a “demanding” job.
“My hope is that whoever gets this job after me, it will be attractive enough to attract some talented folks,” Engen said. “I would never propose a significant raise for myself for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is I knew what the deal was when I signed on for this job. When I go out the door I would seek an increase for the next mayor.
“I’m not getting rich doing this job, but I wouldn’t do it for free, either.”
Missoula has a "strong mayor" form of government. Engen has the right to hire and fire people, while in towns with part-time mayors, that's typically the responsibility of the city manager.
By statute, compensation for Montana mayors and city council members is tied to those of nonunion employees to avoid having elected officials vote to give themselves a raise.
The survey by the Montana League of Cities and Towns showed that council members in Missoula were expected to work 11 to 20 hours per week for a $1,192 monthly salary in 2016. With the raises, their pay increased from $1,249 last year to $1,289 a month, or $15,468 annually in 2019.
At least three city council members — Julie Merritt, Julie Armstrong and Jesse Ramos — declined the compensation increase this year.
Bryan von Lossberg, the Missoula council president, called the change an “adjustment,” not a raise. He noted that health insurance has to be a part of the equation and employees, including covered council members, saw an increase in both their premiums and deductibles this year.
“The numbers are what the numbers are, and all of this is open for discussion,” von Lossberg said. “They are not off limits.”
During Monday night’s meeting to approve the budget, council member Gwen Jones said she thinks they’re providing a great value in service for what she said averages out to be about $7 per hour.
According to the 2016 survey, two other communities also have city councils who put in between 11 to 20 hours per week. Fort Peck council members earned $150 to $250 per month in 2016; Great Falls council members received $487 per month that year.
Making comparisons between Montana’s three full-time mayors’ salary is a bit more difficult. Darby’s mayor was paid $300 per month in 2016, with Forsyth’s mayor receiving $700 per month that year.
In Great Falls, the part-time mayor made $7,716 in 2016, coupled with a city manager earning up to $145,007 and an assistant manager at $128,165 for a top management team compensation total of $280,888 that year.
By comparison, the equivalent of a city manager in Missoula was making $127,500 annually in 2016. Coupled with the mayor’s salary of $84,828 that year, the top management total was $212,328.
“You have to compare the scope of duties,” von Lossberg said. “What some cities stretch their duties across three people, we might do with two.”
Tim Burton, executive director of the Montana Leagues of Cities and Towns, agrees.
“To say one size fits all doesn’t work,” Burton said. “Every community is different and the issues are really different across America wherever you are.”