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Compensation for Whitefish City Council, judge to go on ballot

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | February 28, 2024 12:05 AM

Whitefish City Council plans to put the issue of compensation for the mayor and councilors, including health insurance, on the ballot in November.

In order to assist the council as they considered expanding the health insurance benefits for the council, staff at a work session last week provided a table showing the 2024 budget for city employees’ health care programs. An individual plan costs the city nearly $9,000, while a plan for an entire family is around $23,000.

The council debated adding the benefit of health insurance first, then put the idea of a salary on the ballot for a public vote. A change to the charter is required to initiate a salary for the council, while health insurance could be granted administratively.

The majority of the work session discussion was centered on a health insurance benefit, pushing talk of a salary or stipend to a later date. The group was mostly in agreement about the need for a health care benefit and considered getting health insurance now and pursuing compensation later.

“It boils down to the timing and the mechanism,” Mayor John Muhlfeld said.

Muhlfeld said he and the councilors signed up for their jobs knowing they wouldn’t be compensated with salary stipend or health care. He added he does feel something needs to be done to recruit the new generation to fill the council’s seats in the future.

“Regarding health benefits … although we could do this administratively right now as a city without going out for a ballot measure,” Muhlfeld said. “I think it needs to go to the voters on the ballot for them to decide, otherwise I don't think we should be eligible within our term to receive that benefit,” 

Councilors Steve Qunell and Rebecca Norton said that during their recent campaign they ran across several citizens who suggested the council have health care and should be paid.

“I heard so many times when I was campaigning, people would say, “All of you guys need to get paid,’” said Norton. “I think we won’t have a well-rounded council if we don’t provide for things that people really need at different socio-economic levels. I don’t think it’s appropriate to wait.”

The council mulled over putting the issue of health insurance on a resolution for a public comment.

“We should have the guts to put it to the voters, even if we don't have to,” Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano said. “I understand we have to put the charter modification to the vote.”

Councilor Frank Sweeney said just because council members took the job knowing there would be no compensation doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a reevaluation of that issue and there is no reason to wait.

“I don’t see any reason that this group should not get … health insurance if they want to opt into it,” Sweeney said. “It is fundamentally unjust for us to be treated differently than any other employee … and quite frankly, any other judicial officer or any other council member in virtually every other municipality in the state.

“This is something that can be managed in the short term. Changing the charter for purposes of actual compensation is a different issue,” Sweeney added.

Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith told council if they wanted to extend health insurance benefits to the mayor and council members, the cost would be dependent on what plan they select and would be funded through the general fund.

Currently, the mayor and council members receive per diem and mileage allowances. They are also reimbursed up to $500 per term to offset the purchase of an electronic device, reimbursed $150 per quarter for use of a personal cell phone and receive a membership to the WAVE Aquatic and Fitness Center. 

Another current benefit is that the mayor and councilors may choose to be part of the city’s health insurance program and pay the full premium for the product they select.

ALSO AT the work session, Municipal Judge Caitlin Overland addressed the council about a salary increase.

“I am requesting the city adopt a resolution which provides for increases on a scheduled basis,” Overland wrote to the council. 

Overland suggested two options. The first is to align the Whitefish Municipal Court increases with salary adjustments for state district court judges. The second option is to make annual wage adjustments to the judge’s salary, which mimic the increases to the city manager and city attorney.

After discussion, the council decided to adjust Overland’s salary to 75% of the state district court salary, which is $111,654, and to provide salary adjustments every two years that are inline with wage adjustments for the city manager and the city attorney.

After looking at the salaries of judges around the state, Sweeney suggested giving Overman “more than she asked for and less than she’s worth.”

“We can adjust the judge’s wages to $115,000 … and then, through her term, do the city employee increase and then review before each election to see where we sit,” said Smith.