MERIDEN — For the first time in more than three decades, the base pay and stipends received by the mayor and City Council members will be adjusted, following the council’s vote to adopt changes Monday night.
The council, by a seven to four margin that was not entirely across party lines, voted to adopt the changes. Democrats Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, Michael Rohde, Yvette Cortez, Nicole Tomassetti, Bruce A. Fontanella and Krystle Blake, and Republican Minority Leader Dan Brunet voted in favor of the measure. Meanwhile Deputy Majority Leader Larue Graham, a Democrat, Deputy Minority Leader Bob Williams Jr., of We The People Party, and Republicans Michael Carabetta and Ray Ouellet all voted against the increase. Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks did not attend Monday’s meeting.
According to the resolution, the adopted increases would be tied to cost of living adjustments, which is around 2% annually, based on average annual salary increases negotiated in the city’s most recently adopted labor union contracts. The adjustments for elected officials’ compensation would not become effective until the next council term and would only impact those councilors who are re-elected or newly elected in November.
Each councilor on the 12-member body serves four-year terms, which are staggered, with six council seats, decided every two years. Eight of those overall seats are area representatives and four councilors serve in at-large capacities. After each November election, new council terms begin the next month, in December.
Under the current pay schedule, councilors currently receive a base annual salary of $2,400. Those who serve in additional leadership roles receive additional stipends. Majority party leader is a position with a $2,400 stipend in addition to the base pay. Minority leader brings an additional $2,000 stipend. Deputy majority and minority party leaders each receive an additional $2,000 stipend. Councilors who serve as committee chairs also receive $2,000 for those roles, while vice chairs receive $1,000. The deputy mayor receives an additional $2,400. The Record-Journal calculated that a councilor elected in the upcoming term who serves as a committee chairperson would receive an annual compensation of $4,488 — an increase of $88 from the current compensation total of $4,400.
The mayor meanwhile serves two year terms, with a current annual base pay of $16,788, according to figures shared by city officials. That annual mayoral salary has remained unchanged since it was lowered during the term of then-Mayor Mark D. Benigni, who served in that role from late 2001 to mid-2008. A 2% increase would raise that compensation by $335.76, bringing total compensation to $17,123.76.
Allowances for automobile usage received by councilors and the mayor were not changed as a result of the council’s actions. Those allowances are $50 per month for each councilor, totaling $300 each month. The auto allowance for mayor is $375 a month.
During discussions at the April 17 council meeting and the April 11 finance committee meeting a week before, councilors and Mayor Kevin Scarpati described the increases that the council ultimately adopted as being much more palatable than the increases that were previously proposed. For example, that proposal would have raised individual councilors’ base salaries to $4,000 and the mayor’s annual salary to $25,500. Stipends received for leadership roles also would have increased.
During the finance committee discussions, chair Nicole Tomassetti said while she agrees with the sentiment of the originally proposed increase, she had concerns about their fiscal impact on the city’s budget.
“We need to be aware of the facts that our residents are facing record inflation,” Tomassetti said at the time, while also stating she believes equity has been an issue she said needs to be addressed.
During the following week’s April 17th council meeting, Tomassetti noted the resolution would have a $1,966 increase on the next year’s budget — a total officials said would not impact the city’s mill rate.
Tomassetti said she is “fully willing to recognize and accept” that the proposed compensation increase “doesn’t go far enough in achieving equity.”
“... I think it’s extremely important that our council is representative of our city,” Tomassetti said, adding, “I think a way to move toward that is increasing councilor pay.”
Cortez said the proposed increase wouldn’t impact any current sitting councilors.
“What I can just attest to as a single moment… I often must need to pay to participate in council,” Cortez said, adding that means paying for childcare. Cortez suggested that a significant number of the city’s population would be faced with the decision of having to choose between whether they can care for their children or afford to be council members in order to serve.
“This body is supposed to be representative of our community. And at this moment in time, we are knowingly and willingly eliminating more than half of our participation from having the ability to participate in this council and having the ability to have their voices heard,” Cortez said.
Councilors Williams and Carabetta both took exception to Cortez’s comments.
“Councilor Cortez made the statement we are knowingly and willingly eliminating parts of residents from running for office. That is not my statement. I don’t support that in any way,” Williams said.
Carabetta said the increase “sends the wrong message” by adopting an increase that really only amounts to tens of dollars after taxes.
“It makes a difference what we’re doing for the taxpayer,” he said. “We shouldn’t be doing this to ourselves right now.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati said the increases are not astronomical. He sought to clarify the misconception that people think that he, as mayor, gets paid “six figures.” That is not true, he said.
At the same time, Scarpati said, the city is faced with what he classified as “a significant tax increase” on the city side, which would also impact residents who have to choose between paying rent and child care.
During the preceding finance committee meeting, councilors spoke generally in favor of the proposed increase.
Rohde describe it as “symbolic more than anything else,” given the fact that the measure alone doesn’t impact the budget.
Cardona, during that same meeting, said given the city’s current financial situation, “I think this is a good compromise. It can always be reexamined at a future date if the city is in a better fiscal situation.”