Rockland City Hall. Credit: Stephen Betts / BDN

It’s been more than 40 years since the annual stipend Rockland city councilors recieve has increased, but it could jump substantially — by 500 percent — if voters approve a proposed raise at the polls next month.

Rockland city councilors unanimously agreed to put a charter amendment before voters on Nov. 2 that would increase the stipend they receive from $800 to $4,000 a year. The mayor’s stipend would also increase, from $1,000 a year to $4,500.

The change would make Rockland’s council higher paid than those in cities like Belfast, Ellsworth and Augusta ― cities that have increased their stipends within the past 15 years.  

Though it seems like a steep increase, proponents say it would not only take into account basic cost of living increases over the past 40 years, but would also allow for a more diverse group of people to serve. By increasing the stipend, Councilor Sarah Austin hopes it will allow people from more socioeconomic backgrounds to join the council.

“I think it’s just a way of quietly shutting out the working class from the possibility of participating if we don’t say, ‘What is this work really worth and what does it really demand and are we paying for it equitably,’” Austin said.

The stipends that elected municipal officials ― including city councilors and select board members ― receive vary widely, according to Maine Municipal Association Executive Director Cathy Conlow, but generally are not very high in Maine.

“The idea behind compensation was to recognize it shouldn’t cost them money to do the job, but if you wait long enough it starts to cost money,” Conlow said.

Conlow said stipends are not necessarily intended to reflect total hours worked but more so to make up for money that officials might need to spend ― or possibly miss out on earning ―  while conducting municipal business.

However, the longer a municipality goes without adjusting a stipend, the position can become cost prohibitive over time.

Compared to other city councils, Rockland’s current $800 stipend is low. In Bangor, Belfast and Ellsworth councilors receive $2,000 per year, with the chair getting an extra $500 annually. Augusta city councilors earn slightly more, with a stipend of $200 per month, totaling $2,400 annually. Augusta’s mayoral stipend is an additional $250 per month, for a total of $3,000 annually.

In Maine’s largest city, Portland city councilors earn a stipend of about $7,000 per year, which adjusts each year based on the cost of living.

While there hasn’t been a noticeable trend statewide, Conlow said conversations about stipend increases pop up every now and then among individual communities.

“I think sometimes municipalities just sort of have a reckoning that says well you should at least break even,” Conlow said.

That appears to be happening in Rockland.

With the stipend remaining the same since 1980, councilors in favor of the charter amendment said the city has effectively devalued the position by not keeping up with inflation or the increase in hours that councilors spend doing public work.

Austin estimates that city councilors in Rockland spend about 340 hours per year doing city business.

In addition to City Council meetings, Austin said additional hours are spent talking and meeting with residents, working with city committees and researching policy issues.

While earning an hourly wage isn’t the goal of municipal compensations, under the current $800 stipend, councilors receive just over $2 per hour for the work they do, based on Austin’s 340 hours per year estimate. A $4,000 per year stipend would work out to be just under $12 per hour, which is still short of the $12.75 minimum wage going into effect next year. If passed, the stipend would also adjust annually based on cost-of-living increases.  

By increasing the stipend, Austin said serving as city councilor may be more financially plausible for someone who would have to take time away from their primary job ― and lose hourly pay ― or hire a babysitter.

“There might be people who are absolutely motivated and would be totally brilliant at this work and it would be financial suicide for them to do it,” Austin said. “I really think as a matter of equity, if we want the perspective of everyone in the community to even be possible, we need to remove the financial barrier.”

But increasing the stipends for elected officials can be a hard sell to voters.

Conlow said officials often get pushback for seeking pay increases and abandon the effort because they don’t feel it would be worth the “grief they’re going to get.” In 2002, a similar ballot measure to increase the stipend for Rockland city councilors was shot down by a vote of 1,558 to 1,196, according to Bangor Daily News archives.

At that time, the proposal sent to voters was an increase of $800 to $1,000 for councilors and $1,000 to $2,500 for the mayor.

Mayor Ed Glaser voted in favor of putting the charter amendment on the ballot for voters to decide. But he has said he will vote against the measure himself because he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to ask for a stipend increase when residents are struggling financially themselves.

While stipend increases can be a challenging discussion to tackle, Conlow said she wouldn’t be surprised if more towns and cities start looking at the topic as communities work through economic and racial justice issues.

“I do think when you apply a lens of equity, people may start to feel differently about it and the value that you get from the services that you provide,” Conlow said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a recommendation that comes around.”