'Frugal' local budgets dictate employee salaries

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PORTLAND — Elected officials and public employees in greater Portland didn’t get rich on their wages during 2012, but some individuals came closer than others.

The information was compiled by The Forecaster, which obtained the names and annual compensation of the highest-paid officials or employees in 14 cities and towns.

The newspaper asked each community for its top 10 earners; some provided more, some provided fewer. The request was for compensation based on a year of salary, overtime and any significant stipends. In some cases, the data was from calendar years; in others, fiscal years or school years.

Based on the data, Portland’s top earners also topped the region, bringing in an average of $99,329.

The average would have been even higher, had it included the full-year salary of City Manager Mark Rees, who started work in July 2011. Rees’ salary in the current fiscal year is budgeted at $143,000.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who began his first term in December 2011, also has not served long enough to make the list. But at $65,400, his current fiscal year salary wouldn’t have placed him in the top 10 anyway.

The higher compensation of Portland officials and employees isn’t surprising, according to Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services at the Maine Municipal Association.

“The size of the municipality is the single largest determinant of (compensation),” Conrad said. The manager of a city like Portland, he explained, leads an organization that is comparable in size and complexity to a medium-size corporation.

Serving a population of 64,000, Portland city government employs more than 1,400 workers and has an annual operating budget of roughly $200 million.

At the other end of the scale, some municipalities get by on a handful of employees and equally bare-bones salaries.

For example, the top 10 made an average of just under $48,000 each in Harpswell, which has a population of 4,700 and a municipal budget of about $4 million.

But Harpswell – like several other towns in The Forecaster’s readership area – shares the cost of educating its students through a regional school district. That’s why compensation for educators was compared separately.

Harpswell is a member of School Administrative District 75, which also includes the towns of Bowdoin and Topsham. The 10 highest-paid staff of SAD 75 earn an average of $93,073, considerably more than the top 10 in Harpswell or even in Topsham, where the average is $76,692.

Across the area, the average income of school staff consistently exceeds that of other municipal employees in the same communities.

And the top school officials were some of the highest-paid public employees anywhere in the area. All of the nine school districts that responded to the survey reported their superintendents made annual salaries of more than six figures. Three superintendents – in Falmouth, Portland and Scarborough – earned more than $130,000.

Police officers and firefighters also are well-compensated.

While it wasn’t unusual for chiefs to receive high salaries, other police and fire personnel also ranked in their communities’ top 10, thanks to overtime pay. Those communities included Bath, Freeport, Portland and Topsham.

While some compensation amounts may seem lucrative, public employees are seeing their paychecks grow slowly. Over the past five years, wages for Maine municipal workers have increased between 1 and 2.5 percent a year, according to Conrad.

That’s in line with the municipal raises approved recently by the Portland City Council. It’s also about the same as the federal cost-of-living adjustments over the same time.

But making head-to-head comparisons among different communities can be misleading, Conrad said.

His organization, whose membership includes nearly 500 municipalities in Maine, conducts a salary survey of its own. Aside from the size of the city or town, and factors such as length of employment, there are few variables that can be used to determine an appropriate compensation level.

“There’s just no rule of thumb,” he said.

Still, one pattern is clear, he said: Maine municipalities are frugal.

“Municipal government in Maine is much more cost-effective than other government,” he said. “We’re used to being frugal.”

Town services in Maine cost 33 percent less than they do in other rural states, according to a 2010 study by nonpartisan think-tank Envision Maine.

Ultimately, Conrad said, decisions about employee compensation are driven by the unique needs and expectations of each community.

“The dynamics are always going to be very different,” he said. “Every community should look at what’s best for itself. These are tough jobs, and each of them has multiple masters.”

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

Forecaster Public Compensation Survey