Cost of service: Elected officials in greater Portland defend, decry stipends

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PORTLAND — It’s 7 p.m. on a weekday, and in various town or city halls throughout greater Portland, the same scene is unfolding.

A group of men and women will say the pledge of allegiance and take their seats around a U-shaped table. For the next few hours, they will listen as their neighbors blast or praise decisions. They will discuss debt service and debate development. They will approve liquor licenses and school curriculum changes.

And in another week or two, they will come back and do it all again.

For their efforts, many elected officials, although not all, receive stipends. The amounts vary, from nothing in Cape Elizabeth to $6,000 in Harpswell. A survey of these councilors, selectmen and school board members revealed a range of views on whether, and how much, they should be paid for their service.

But nearly everyone agreed on one thing: no one goes into local politics for the money.

From zero to $6,000

Most elected local officials in greater Portland are paid to serve.

In some towns, like Falmouth, Cumberland and Chebeague Island, town councilors and selectmen are paid per meeting they attend with an annual cap on compensation. School boards in Regional School Unit 1, RSU 5 and School Administrative District 75, follow the same policy, although they don’t cap annual payments.

All other school boards, councils and boards of selectmen pay annual stipends that are usually distributed in installments.

On the high end, Harpswell’s selectmen receive $6,000 annually, an amount Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said is a holdover from the 1990s, when Harpswell had fewer town staff and selectmen had much more responsibility.

At just over $5,800, Portland’s city councilors receive the second-highest stipend of any municipality in The Forecaster’s coverage area. While Councilor Ed Suslovic said he had no complaints about the stipend, he also noted that for many councilors, being an elected official is almost a full-time job.

“On the one hand you could say that local elected officials are grossly underpaid … but on the other hand, I view it as, nobody held a gun to my head to run,” he said.

While Suslovic said wouldn’t mind a larger stipend, he said he’d never ask for a raise.

“Could I justify more? Absolutely,” he said. “Am I demanding more? Absolutely not.”

Places like Brunswick, Topsham, South Portland and Bath are near the middle of the pack, with annual stipends ranging from $2,000 in Brunswick to more than $3,100 in Bath.

On the lower end are Falmouth, Freeport and Yarmouth, which all pay their councilors $1,000.

And at the bottom sit Cape Elizabeth and SAD 51 (Cumberland and North Yarmouth), whose elected officials work for free.

“I’m surprised that people do get stipends or benefits. It’s so not in the culture of Cape Elizabeth,” said Sara Lennon, chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council.

Lennon said she can’t remember a time when town councilors were paid, and said not having a stipend is “just cleaner. …You’re totally doing this for public service. There’s no self-interest, there’s nothing you can gain.”

School Board members in SAD 51 were paid $25 a meeting until the tight budget year of 2008, when they voted to forgo their stipends.

“Giving up a couple thousand dollars of stipends for board members is pretty much a non-factor,” board Chairman Jim Bailinson said. “But it sends a signal that we’re trying to be in solidarity with both the taxpayers and the members of the school community that are trying to do more with less.”

Individual stipends don’t tell the whole story, however, since some towns with high stipends have small boards or councils, meaning they spend less on their officials than towns with large councils and lower stipends.

Harpswell, for example, has only three selectmen and collectively pays them $18,000 annually, while Bath spends nearly $30,000 on its nine councilors.

Harpswell also offers health insurance to selectmen, something South Portland and Portland also provide for councilors and, in Portland, School Board members, too.

Municipalities have to be careful, however, about how they offer insurance. South Portland is being sued because its City Charter only allows a $3,000 stipend per councilor, but the city spends more than $50,000 to provide health benefits for four councilors.

No other communities offer benefits to elected officials.

Is it enough?

Councilors and school board members’ views vary on the purpose of stipends, and whether or not they are sufficient.

Rather than viewing his $1,000 stipend as a salary, Jim Cassida, chairman of the Freeport Town Council, said it’s more like compensation for volunteering.

“We’re volunteer public servants, in my opinion, and the fact that we get reimbursed some amount to defray costs is the rational behind (the stipend),” Cassida said.

Corinne Perreault, vice chairwoman of the Brunswick School Board, said the $1,500 stipend she receives is “incredibly low for the hours that we ultimately put in.” But she also said neither she nor any other board members would ever request more, especially given the town’s recent budget cuts.

But David Sinclair, chairman of the Bath City Council, said a stipend, however small, is important.

“If there were a movement to wholly abolish the stipend I would worry we wouldn’t get any candidates, because people couldn’t afford to give that time and not get any income from it,” Sinclair said.

He also suggested that without some compensation, only retirees or wealthier residents would have the financial ability to serve.

“We see a lot of that already, and it’s not that I have anything against that demographic at all,” he said, “but they’re not the only demographic in town.”

But Lennon, of Cape Elizabeth, disputed that notion.

“I’m just not sure that that amount would either preclude someone from running or entice them to run,” she said of the money most elected officials are paid.

There is another way to simplify the stipend dilemma: donate it all to charity.

Falmouth Councilor Bonny Rodden said she now gives her $1,000 stipend to the Falmouth Food Pantry.

“I made a pledge in the fall to do it because it was clear that the need was there,” Rodden said. “They need it more than I do.”

Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or Follow her on Twitter: @guerinemily.

Sidebar Elements

How much are your local elected officials paid?

PORTLAND — From nothing in Cape Elizabeth to $6,000 in Harpswell, the amount paid to local elected officials varies widely in greater Portland. Here are the stipends for town councilors, selectmen and school board members:

Bath: $3,106 annually for a city councilor, $3,742 for the city council chairman.

Brunswick: $2,000 annually for a town councilor, $2,500 for the council chairman; $1,500 annually for School Board members.

Cape Elizabeth: no stipends.

Chebeague Island: $50 per meeting for selectmen, an annual cap of $1,200; $240 per year for School Board members.

Cumberland: $100 per meeting for councilors, an annual cap of $2,000; chairman receives $2,400 annually.

Falmouth: $40 per meeting for councilors, annual cap of $1,000.

Freeport: $800 annually for councilors, $900 for the vice chairman, $1,000 for the chairman.

Harpswell: $6,000 annually for selectmen, health insurance available.

North Yarmouth: $600 annually for selectmen, $750 for the chairman.

Portland: $5,812 annually for councilors and School Board members, $7,372 for school board chairman; mayor receives 1.5 times the median household income for Portland, or $65,401 in 2011-2012. All eligible for health insurance.

Regional School Unit 1 (Bath): $25 per meeting, no annual cap.

RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal, Durham): $25 per meeting, no annual cap.

School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland, North Yarmouth): no stipend.

SAD 75 (Topsham, Harpswell): $10 per meeting, no annual cap.

Scarborough: $1,500 annually for council and School Board members, $1,750 for chairmen.

South Portland: $3,000 annually for councilors, $1,000 annually for School Board members; health insurance available for councilors.

Topsham: $2,800 annually for selectmen, $3,600 for chairman.

Yarmouth: $1,000 annually for councilors and School Board members.

— Emily Guerin