, Salem, MA

February 25, 2013

Raises stir up negative feelings

Pay hikes allow members of school board to count service toward pensions

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Some city councilors are acknowledging a backlash following their decision last week to raise salaries for city councilors and School Committee members, along with that of the mayor.

The vote, which boosted school board salaries from $4,000 per year to $5,100, put those officials in a position to receive pensions for the first time.

Council President Tom Gould said he wasn’t aware of this added benefit for School Committee members when he voted for the increase. But asked if knowing would have changed his vote, he said, “I don’t think it would have.”

Pension reform laws passed in 2009 bar School Committee members from counting their years of service toward public pensions if they earn $5,000 or less. The council’s vote puts them over that limit.

Gould conceded that not all his constituents are happy with the pay raises.

“There’s been a lot of negativity,” he said, something he said is understandable given the state of the economy. “We have to be sensitive. It’s a tough economy. ... I see people every day who are struggling.”

On the other hand, he said, school board members hadn’t had a raise since 1998. The mayor and city councilors last got pay raises in 2001.

Starting in March, the mayor’s salary will rise from nearly $95,000 to $105,000. School Committee raises will also begin in March.

City councilors’ pay raises won’t take effect until the new term in 2014. Thereafter, however, councilors will get automatic pay raises every time the mayor gets a raise, because they voted to set their own compensation at 9 percent of the mayor’s salary. Beginning in 2014, that works out to $9,450 per year, plus an $1,800 stipend for expenses.

City councilors and School Committee members in Peabody can also opt into the city’s health insurance program. School Committee members who enjoy this benefit include Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne, Jarrod Hochman, Dave McGeney and Brandi Carpenter. Councilors taking city health benefits are Michael Garabedian, Rico Mello, Barry Sinewitz and Gould.

The cost to the city of these health benefits varies, depending on the plan chosen, from more than $14,000 per year to more than $20,000 per year.

City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin voted against all the pay raises, citing the perilous economy. She also indicates that she’s since tracked some public resistance to the increases.

Manning-Martin praised the hard work of the school board, where she once served, but said she hadn’t considered that the pay raise would make it possible for the members to use their years of service toward public pensions. If she had, she would have brought it up as an issue.

“I can’t speak for the members who voted in favor of the pay raise,” she said. “I would guess they didn’t think of it.”

Councilor David Gravel explained that he voted to increase the mayor’s salary, but against the package that would have boosted compensation for both the council and the school board.

“I thought we were fairly paid,” he said. Formerly a member of the School Committee, Gravel said he took city health insurance then but decided not to when he was elected to the City Council.

“I saw what that costs (to the city),” he said. “That’s a lot of money. ... When you’re asking taxpayers to pay tax increases, it’s hard to say that you’ll take city health care.”

As for his new pay increase, Gravel is promising to donate it to charity.

The pensions available to both councilors and school board members would not be large. Yet, thanks to a quirk in state law, an elected official of long service who gains a full-time city job can then apply for a pension offering compensation based not on the relatively small amounts paid to part-time elected officials, but on the full-time salary paid during those final years.

School board member David McGeney says he hasn’t heard “one thing” critical about the pay raises.

“I appreciate the raise,” he said.

Those who disapprove, he said, have frequent elections in which to make their opinions felt. But he said voters are usually well-informed regarding the efforts put forth by elected officials.

“School Committee is a great deal more than just showing up for meetings,” he said.

He estimated that the workload in the slow summer months might be 10 hours a week, but by budget season — late winter and early spring — members can find themselves immersed in school business up to 20 hours a week.

As for the length of those budget meetings, he said, “The record is 4 o’clock in the morning. And I had to get up and go to work the next day.”