(from Maine Townsman, October 2003)
by Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer
Municipalities across Maine are facing hard times. Property taxes have reached their limit. Excise taxes, the other major local revenue source, have weakened, as people either delay the purchase of new cars or buy older vehicles. And, over the past couple of years state income and sales tax revenues have shown little growth, resulting in stagnant revenue sharing payments to cities and towns.
At the same time, fixed costs are rising. Health insurance premiums for many communities last year rose by 14 to 15 percent, forcing communities either to absorb the higher costs or pass some of them along to their employees. Contracts with labor unions in many communities also are pressuring the bottom line, calling for employees to receive raises of 2 to 3 percent, keeping pace with inflation.
The recently released 2003 Salary Survey, published by Maine Municipal Association, shows a wide variation in municipal employee pay and benefits, often linked to the position or size of the community. City and town managers, as you might expect, are the highest compensated municipal employees, followed by department heads in mid-sized to larger communities. Elected selectmen and councilors are some of the lowest paid municipal officials, even though many of them put in long hours of community service.
HIRING THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST
During the economic boom of the 1990s, pay scales in general rose as municipalities sought to attract and retain qualified employees. The pressure was especially high in larger communities that had to compete for workers with private employers offering good salaries.
In Augusta, for instance, City Manager William Bridgeo has sought to attract talented department heads to his administrative team by paying them more than their predecessors. Although some taxpayers have grumbled about the practice, Bridgeo contends that it is necessary to draw the best and the brightest.
“It’s what the market requires,” said Bridgeo, city manager in the capital for four years. “There’s always a dynamic between hiring quality people to get the job done and what you pay.”
When the city’s finance director and assistant city manager left earlier this year, Bridgeo recruited a replacement from South Portland who had a reputation for excellent fiscal management. Doing so, however, required paying the recruit more money than his predecessor. “The Council recognized that that was a prudent move,” he said.
Still, Bridgeo said he remains sensitive to the need to balance the desire to hire talented employees against taxpayers’ ability to pay. “You’ve got to respect taxpayers’ sensitivity … but not do those same taxpayers a disservice by failing to recruit and hire qualified employees,” he said.
The MMA salary survey reveals that average hourly rates climb with population. Larger communities such as Brunswick and Bangor have the resources to pay employees more than smaller ones like Morrill and Moscow. Consider the job of municipal clerk, common to every community in the state. Clerks in Maine’s largest cities and towns — those with at least 20,000 residents — earn an average of $28.54 an hour. In communities with fewer than 1,000 residents, by contrast, clerks earn an average of just $8.94 an hour.
EXCELLENT RESPONSE RATE
As in the past, MMA sent the salary survey to each of Maine’s 492 municipalities. Of that number, 301 completed and returned the forms – a response rate of 61 percent.
Communities with the greatest response rates were those with at least 20,000 residents. All eight of those municipalities completed and returned the survey. Municipalities with populations between 3,500 and 19,999 also showed strong participation. Roughly 90 percent of those 78 communities responded to the survey. And nearly 70 percent of municipalities with between 2,000 and 3,499 residents participated.
Participation dropped off in smaller communities. Just 61.3 percent of communities between 1,000 and 1,999 completed and returned the survey forms. Maine’s smallest municipalities — those with fewer than 1,000 residents — had the lowest response rates. Of those 217 communities, only 99 participated in the survey. That is a response rate of 45.6 percent.
SAMPLING OF MUNICIPAL PAY
The 2003 Salary Survey shows wide variations in the pay for municipal employees in Maine. What follows is a look at the salaries for selected positions. Salaries have been converted to hourly wages. Any other way of comparing positions would be inappropriate since some positions are part-time or contracted.
Municipal Manager or Administrator. Compensation showed the widest discrepancies of the 65 positions surveyed. Average salaries range from a high of $43.98 per hour in the eight Maine municipalities with more than 20,000 residents, to $13.21 hourly in the 47 respondent communities with populations of fewer than 1,000. Average salaries for managers in communities of other sizes fell somewhere in the middle. They ranged from $41.29 hourly for communities of between 10,000 and 19,999, to $16.94 hourly in communities with between 1,000 and 1,999 residents.
Code Enforcement Officer. Salaries for this position showed the least variance. Code enforcement officers are often contracted positions in smaller municipalities and the scope of responsibility of the position doesn't vary that much according to size of community. In Maine’s eight largest communities, code enforcement officers earn an average of $23.23 per hour, while those in some of the state’s smallest towns draw an average $20.68 hourly.
Tax Collector. The highest-paid tax collectors in Maine also work in communities with more than 20,000 residents. They earn an average hourly wage of $24. Tax collectors at the bottom end of the pay scale work in communities with fewer than 1,000 residents. They earn an average of $11.85 an hour. Salaries in communities of other sizes range from $23.54 hourly for communities of 10,000 to 20,000 residents, to $12.40 hourly in municipalities with populations between 1,000 and 1,999.
Director of Public Works. The position of public works director is typically found in larger and mid-sized communities. Average salaries for public works directors in the over 20,000 group are $31.87 per hour. The pay difference between communities over 20,000 and between 10,000 and 20,000 is slight. The communities between 10K and 20K pay an average of $31.43 an hour.
Road Commissioner. Most communities with fewer than 10,000 residents generally employ road commissioners instead of public works directors. Municipalities with between 2,000 and 3,499 residents pay their road commissioners an average of $18.58 hourly while the smallest communities, with fewer than 1,000 residents, pay road commissioners an average of $13.96 hourly.
Heavy Equipment Operator. Average wages range from a high of $15.92 per hour in communities with between 10,000 and 20,000 residents, to a low of $11.20 hourly in places with populations between 1,000 and 2,000.
Maintenance Laborer. Laborers in larger areas, not surprisingly, earn more than in smaller communities. Maine’s eight largest cities and towns pay an average of $13.94 an hour, while laborers in the smallest towns earn an average of $7.58 hourly. Average pay for laborers in other communities ranges from $12.02 hourly in communities with populations between 10,000 and 20,000, to $7.68 per hour in towns with 1,000 to 2,000 residents.
Police Chief. The chiefs in Maine’s largest communities earn an average $34.57 an hour, compared with $18.19 hourly in towns with populations between 2,000 and 3,499. Salaries in other communities fall somewhere in the middle, ranging from $31.42 hourly in places with populations of between 10,000 to 20,000, to $18.81 an hour in communities with fewer than 1,000 residents that employ a police chief.
Police Officer. The officers patrolling the streets of Maine’s eight largest cities and towns earn an average base salary of $16.67 hourly, compared with an average $12.44 per hour for officers in places with between 1,000 and 2,000 residents. Average officer salaries in communities of other sizes range from $17.39 hourly in places with between 10,000 and 20,000 residents, to $14.13 per hour in communities with populations of less than 1,000.
Librarian. Wages for Maine municipal librarians range from, on average, a high of $31.25 per hour in large communities, to $8.65 hourly in the smallest towns. Librarians’ pay in communities of other sizes ranges from an average $24 per hour in places with between 10,000 and 20,000 residents; $18.32 hourly in places with populations between 5,000 and 9,999; and $8.98 hourly in towns with 1,000 to 1,999 residents.
Among the lowest-paid employees in many municipalities are the elected officers — selectmen and councilors — many of whom put in long hours for small stipends. In a few larger communities, the salaries — which are prescribed in the municipal charter —have remained unchanged for years due to the political difficulties of making charter amendments.
Most mayors, according to the salary survey, typically receive a higher compensation than other elected municipal officers. On the upper end of the scale, the mayors of Waterville and Biddeford earn annual stipends of $10,000. Portland, the state’s largest city, pays its mayor $6,389 per year, Lewiston $4,200, Auburn $3,000, and South Portland $4,000. The mayor of Bangor, by contrast, receives an annual stipend of just $400 (salary is set by charter). Hampden’s mayor also falls near the low end of the mayoral pay scale, with a stipend of just $25 per meeting.
The chairs of some councils and boards of selectmen, according to the survey, receive a slightly higher compensation than regular selectmen or councilors. For example, Sanford’s chairman of the board of selectmen gets $2,500 while the other selectmen receive $2,000. The town of Franklin pays its first selectman $5,000 and the other two selectmen $2,000.
Some mid-sized communities without managers pay their first selectmen an annual stipend that is reflects their increased administrative responsibilities. For example, Hollis pays the chair of its board of selectmen an annual stipend of $15,900. In Morrill (Waldo County), the first selectman receives a stipend of $10,000 annually. In Harpswell, a seaside town in Cumberland County, the chair of the board of selectmen is paid $8,000. And on Swan’s Island, a Hancock County community of just 327 year-round residents, the top selectmen earns $13,500 annually.
The salary survey revealed that pay for regular councilors and selectmen also varies widely. South Berwick, for instance, pays its councilors $12,000 per year, whereas town councilors in Winslow, about an hour’s drive north, receive just $10 per meeting. Selectmen in Shapleigh make $6,000 per year, while in Readfield they are paid just $577 annually.
HEALTH COSTS CLIMB
With a stagnant economy and non-property tax revenues barely treading water, many communities have sought to hold employee raises to the rate of inflation. Municipal managers contacted by the TOWNSMAN said negotiated raises are averaging 2-3 percent. At the same time, some communities have been forced to pass along health-insurance premiums to their employees.
In Augusta, for example, 3-percent raises awarded to city employees were wiped out by a 5-percent increase in health insurance costs. Annual premium increases of as much as 15 percent in recent years have placed pressure on municipalities, which must look either to pass the increases on to their employees or curb spending in other areas to offset those higher costs. “The big [compensation] issue a lot of communities are facing is obviously health care costs,” says Ed Barrett, city manager of Bangor.
Increasingly, communities have begun seeking cost-sharing of insurance premiums. With costs rising, municipal leaders are growing reluctant to foot the entire bill. “If you go back 15 years, the vast majority of municipalities were probably paying 100 percent of health-care costs,” Barrett says. “That has changed over the past 10 years.”
The salary survey confirms that trend. Of the 301 respondents, just 144 — fewer than half — now fully fund health-insurance premiums for single employees. The rest require employees to pay part of their health costs. Even so, according to the survey, municipalities still are picking up 80 percent to 90 percent of premium costs for single employees.
In a sign of the times, however, fewer municipalities are willing to fully fund premium costs for family coverage. Just 32 of the 301 respondents — 10.6 percent — cover the premiums for employees and their families. At the other end of the scale, several communities offer no family coverage at all. Those communities, all with populations of less than 7,000, typically fully fund single coverage but require their employees to pay the additional premium costs for their families. Thirty-three respondents fall into that category.
“It’s a difficult issue for the employer, and it’s a difficult issue for the employee,” Barrett says. “It puts everybody in a difficult situation.”