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Editorial: Calibrating a city’s perks

Northampton City Hall

GORDON DANIELS Northampton City Hall Purchase photo reprints »

It was only a matter of time before the subject of pay and benefits for Northampton’s part-time elected officials reared its head. Now that is has, the city has a golden opportunity to review whether its system of compensation and benefits for these public servants is fair, lacking or, as some might see it, too generous.

A Northampton city councilor earns a $5,000 annual stipend and the council’s president receives $5,500. School Committee members earn $2,500 annually for their service. In addition, these elected officials are offered health insurance through the city, a perk available to them for the past 35 years in conjunction with health insurance laws approved by the state. It is this latter benefit — health insurance — that is getting new scrutiny largely because of its cost to the city.

Eleven of the city’s elected officials, including six councilors and three school officials, take advantage of the city’s health insurance. The city pays 80 percent of an employee’s premiums and employees pay the remainder of the costs. This translates into an approximately $100,000 annual expense for the city’s elected officials. When the two full-time employees on those plans — the mayor and city clerk — are eliminated from the equation, it becomes a more than $70,000 annual city expense, according to figures provided by the city.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to nail down how much work a city councilor or School Committee member does. No one doubts the work burden of these elected offices is considerable.

Meetings can run long and these officials take home documents and budgets to study out of public view. They serve on subcommittees and appear at public forums that can take hours. When hot-button topics emerge, these part-timers’ phones can ring off the hook from constituents. They can receive so many emails they are unable to respond to them all, we sometimes hear.

But nobody is documenting that time, those calls or that correspondence.

In our opinion, now that the matter has come to the fore, we believe the city can and should conduct a thorough assessment of the workload of these elected officials, which has certainly evolved, if not grown, over the years. As part of that review, the city should re-evaluate both the pay and health insurance perk to determine whether it is appropriate and fair, areas that the council and mayor control.

Offering health insurance to elected officials is not uncommon — nor is it a secret, as some might suggest. It just hasn’t been talked about for years.

In Easthampton and Holyoke, for example, the two closest cities with similar government structures to Northampton, part-time elected officials are offered health insurance. In Easthampton, city councilors earn $3,000 annually and must pay 100 percent of their health insurance costs, a policy in place for the past decade. Not surprisingly, none take advantage of that plan.

In Holyoke, city councilors earn $10,000 annually, but councilors on the city’s health insurance plan pay closer to half the cost of the insurance.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association says it does not track the issue, but acknowledges that cities and towns across the state use a variety of plans to provide health insurance to paid, part-time employees. The organization views the matter as a local issue.

In November’s special municipal election, voters in Northampton will be asked to accept proposed charter changes. One section calls on the City Council to establish a compensation advisory board for elected officials within 180 days of the charter being ratified.

Periodically, and at least once every 10 years, the board would study elected officials’ compensation and make recommendations to the mayor and council.

If voters approve the measure, the path is clear to engage taxpayers in an open dialogue about this money matter. But even if the charter measures are not approved, we believe the city can and still should address the issue thoroughly. It’s only fair.

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