Harpswell selectmen earn at the top, while town employee wages lag

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HARPSWELL — The Board of Selectmen is considering salary increases for some town employees, who on average earn less than their peers in other towns.

But according to Selectman Elinor Multer, the board is unlikely to amend a $6,000 annual wage paid to selectmen, who earn nearly twice as much as the highest-paid elected officials in comparable communities – and almost as much as city councilors in Maine’s largest city, Portland.

“I don’t think we’re going to (reduce selectmen’s salaries), at least there’s been no discussion of it,” Multer said in an interview Wednesday. 

In a wage and salary report released earlier this month, which included a proposed pay-grade system for town employees, consultant Michael Wing found that many employees were between the low and mid-ranges of a 10-level pay scale. Most were paid below the average salary in similarly sized towns in the region. 

At the same time, Harpswell’s three selectmen are some of the highest-paid elected officials in the area, according to Wing’s report. 

Wing included a survey of elected official’s pay in 11 Maine towns and cities similar to Harpswell, including towns as far away as Camden and Waldoboro.

According to Wing’s analysis, Harpswell selectmen were paid more than three times the $1,834 average annual wage for elected officials in the other towns. 

Only Bath, at $3,766 per year for its City Council chairman and $3,168 for councilors, and Topsham, which pays its Board of Selectmen chairman $3,604 and $2,817 to other selectmen, came even close to Harpswell’s rate of pay, according to Wing. 

Information from other local towns shows Harpswell at the top of the pack in terms of the pay elected officials receive, surpassed only by Portland city councilors, who receive $6,024 annually.

Harpswell selectmen surpassed Brunswick, where the Town Council chairman gets $2,500 and councilors receive $2,000 a year.

In nearby Freeport, elected officials receive a comparative pittance, $1,000 for the chairman, $900 for vice chairman, and $800 for town councilors, according to figures provided by town officials.

In Falmouth, some councilors refer to their $1,000 stipend as “babysitting money” that covers their evening meetings, Town Manager Nathan Poore said. 

“Half the time, they don’t even take their pay,” Poore added.

Harpswell’s selectmen-town administrator form of government, which gives elected officials more authority than in some other municipalities, partially explains why they receive more compensation, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said. 

“Part of the explanation is the tradition and history here, that for many, many years selectmen served as the administrator, so to speak, before there was a town administrator,” Eiane said. 

While selectmen have largely delegated the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the town and its staff to the administrator, they still have ultimate authority to hire and fire town employees or deal with personnel issues.

The town’s selectmen are also responsible for final decisions on assessing and property tax abatement, Eiane noted. 

In other matters, like policy development, budgeting and day-to-day administration, Harpswell selectmen do not have a noticeably different role than other municipalities, Eiane said, but they might be more involved in town affairs.

“I think there’s been a reluctance to reduce their compensation because people see that they’re very active,” she said, noting the number of meetings the three board members attend. 

Selectmen hold regular meetings every two weeks and each selectman also holds a liaison position on other town committees.  

“That may or may not be different than what other communities do, but certainly there has been a sense that the selectmen should be compensated for that kind of activity, time and effort they put into their elected position,” Eiane said. 

Multer pointed out the amount paid to selectmen was reduced by voters at Town Meeting in 2007, from $8,000 per year for the chairman and $7,500 for other selectmen, to the current $6,000 annual salary for each.

“I think the $6,000 is very fair in terms of the time we put into the job, and I think my colleagues put in as much time as I do,” Multer said, adding that she has had trouble keeping on top of her personal business because of the time she spends on town affairs. 

“I really think that people who are working for a couple thousand dollars are either leaning much more on whoever is administering the town, or they are being significantly overpaid,” she added. 

Messages left for Board of Selectmen Chairman Rick Daniel and Selectman Kevin Johnson were not returned Wednesday afternoon. 

The board met in a Nov. 17 workshop to review the study and asked staff to provide cost estimates to bring wages into line with a proposed pay-grade system, and to compensate long-serving employees adequately. 

The board met on Thursday, Nov. 20, after The Forecaster’s deadline, to discuss the matter further, and have not taken any action on possible salary increases.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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Salary comparison

Harpswell selectmen are paid $6,000 a year. Here’s what councilors and selectmen are paid annually in other towns and cities around Maine, according to consultant Michael Wing and information gathered by The Forecaster:

• Bath – $3,766 (chairman), $3,168 (other councilors).

• Boothbay – $1,850.

• Brunswick – $2,500 (chairman), $2,000 (other councilors).

• Camden – $1,500.

• Freeport – $1,000 (chairman), $900 (vice chairman), $800 (other councilors).

• Gray – $2,000.

• Lisbon – $1,500 (chairman), $1,000 (other councilors).

• New Gloucester – $1,200.

• North Yarmouth – $1,000.

• Portland – $6,024.

• Scarborough – $1,750 (chairman), $1,500 (other councilors).

• South Portland – $3,000.

• Topsham – $3,604 (chairman), $2,817 (other councilors).

• Waldoboro – $1,390.

• Wiscassett – $2,500 (chairman), $2,000 (other board members).

• Yarmouth – $1,000.

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