(HELENA) The Helena City Commission is moving forward with a proposal to raise the salaries of the mayor and commissioners.

The commission unanimously endorsed the plan in an initial vote Monday evening. They will hold a public hearing on the proposal at their meeting on Dec. 18.

Currently, Helena pays the mayor $8,500 a year, plus $150 a month for expenses. Each commissioner receives $6,800 a year and $100 a month for expenses. The commission has proposed increasing those salaries by about a third, to $11,000 and $200 for expenses for the mayor and $9,000 plus $150 for expenses for commissioners.

Commissioner Dan Ellison, who is retiring at the end of the month, has led the effort to provide raises for the commission.

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“I think the time has come for an increase, and telling those that are willing to put themselves forward and run for election and get elected and serve on this commission that their compensation will be increased,” Ellison said.

Leaders say increasing the salaries will make city offices available to a wider variety of people in Helena.

“It shouldn’t be just a job that someone who’s retired or has a well-paying job can afford to do,” said Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen. “It should be a job that anyone can do, regardless of economic status, and I think this takes us a long way in getting there.”

According to the city charter, any raises for the mayor and commission can’t take effect until after the next city election. In this case, the change would start in January 2020.

That means most of the current city officeholders may not benefit from the raise. Ellison and Mayor Jim Smith are both leaving office this year. Farris-Olsen and Commissioner Ed Noonan would both have to win reelection in 2019. Ellison said Commissioner Andres Haladay, who would still be in office in 2020, has recused himself from voting on the issue.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the commission unanimously approved an agreement to settle a yearlong legal battle over annexing a neighborhood on Helena’s west side into the city.

“This has been a long process, but I’m pleased that we were able to come to an agreed-upon settlement that I think is going to be good for the folks out on the west side and good for the city of Helena,” said Smith.

The settlement deals with a roughly triangular area of land east of Joslyn Street, including about 140 houses. It is currently outside the city limits, but completely surrounded by land that is part of the city.

Helena leaders have been planning to annex the area for years, and they officially approved annexation last year. But seven landowners sued to block the move, over concerns they would be required to pay for planned improvements to the water and sewer system.

City leaders said they and the property owners submitted to mediation by retired judge Jeffrey Sherlock. Both sides reached an agreement, clarifying how the costs should be divided.

Now that the city has approved the settlement, the property owners will have five days to withdraw their lawsuit. Once that happens, the neighborhood will be officially annexed into the city of Helena, possibly early next week.

Crews are expected to start work on the water and sewer improvements next spring. City Manager Ron Alles said Helena received a $750,000 state grant for the projects and would have lost that money had the work not started next year.

There are still several more neighborhoods on the west side that the city has identified for possible annexation. Alles said the commission will further consider those areas in the coming years.

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