Report: Northampton mayor, elected officials deserve big pay bump

By CHAD CAIN

Managing Editor

Published: 06-02-2023 3:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The next mayor, City Council and two school committees could be in line for significant pay increases starting in January should councilors go along with the recommendations in a recent report by an independent advisory board.

The Elected Officials Compensation Advisory Board, in a report presented to the council on May 18, calls for the mayor to be paid $130,000 a year, up from the current salary of $92,500.

In what would be the first salary increase for the city’s chief executive officer in eight years, the advisory board noted that Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra is currently the 98th highest-paid city employee. In 2014, the last time the board conducted a review of salaries of elected officials, the mayor’s salary ranked 64th. Boosting the salary by $37,500 per year would make the mayor the 16th highest paid public employee in the city.

In making its recommendation, the board examined the requirements of the full-time position, the number of boards and committees on which the mayor must serve, a work week of between 60 and 80 hours, and the 24/7 nature of the job that includes not only official and ceremonial duties but also regional and state meetings and functions as well as increased “availability and expectations ... exacerbated via social media.”

The advisory board also examined the pay of part-time elected officials, determining that offering higher and more competitive salaries would help to attract qualified candidates and encourage contested elections, as well as increase the diversity of elected officials.

“The board operated under the assumption that encouraging a fair elected representation of the City’s diversity — especially underserved communities that traditionally have not been well-represented and historically have been denied equity ... is most beneficial to the City as a whole,” the report states.

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Additionally, current elected officials contacted as part of the report said that while their work is fulfilling, most believe the compensation is not adequate and that it may be a deterrent to residents running for elected positions.

The advisory board members was composed of John Bidwell as chair, Tara Brewster, Felicia Corbeil, Deb Henson, Sam Hopper, Javier Luengo Garrido and Peter Whalen.

Whalen voted against the recommendations in all categories.

“I feel that they were too large in a time when the city’s budget is strained,” Whalen wrote in a May 10 memo that’s included in the report. “In addition, while I understand and do not disagree with the methodology employed by the group as they attempted to fairly compensate our officials, the recommended levels would put us far outside of what similar positions in the benchmarked cities/towns that are close to our city’s demographics earn.”

At its meeting last Thursday, the council referred the matter to its legislative matters committee, which will hold a meeting on June 12 at 5 p.m. The meeting will be in person at City Council chambers and hybrid.

“It’s going to be a hopping meeting,” Council President James Nash said.

Rationale for increases

In its report — the first one done since 2014 — the board determined its recommendations after comparing salaries against a benchmark of six other communities in western Massachusetts similar to Northampton in both population and median household income, and which have the same mayor/council form of government. Those communities were Easthampton, Greenfield, Westfield, Pittsfield, Agawam and West Springfield.

The new mayoral salary, if approved by the council, would put Northampton well above the other communities studied, where the average salary is $102,700. By comparison, the mayor in Easthampton makes $83,000, in Greenfield the salary is $93,157, and in West Springfield it’s $120,000.

Meanwhile, city councilors who represent individual wards would see their annual salaries rise from $9,000 to $16,931, with at-large positions jumping from $9,500 to $16,931. The salary of the city council president would be $21,164, up from the current $10,000.

Should the increases take effect, Northampton councilors would make more than councilors in the benchmark communities. By comparison, Easthampton councilors make $6,000 while Westfield councilors earn $14,000.

School Committee members and the trustees of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School would earn $9,312 a year under the proposal. All positions currently pay $5,000 a year, except for the at-large school committee members who earn $5,500.

Like the mayor and council, the changes would mean Northampton’s school representatives make more than similar positions in the other communities studied. Easthampton pays its elected school board members $4,000 a year, while Westfield’s members get $8,680.

In its report, the advisory board also recommends that elected officials receive 2% cost-of-living increases in 2025 and subsequent years in which the board does not meet.

Bidwell told the council during his presentation on May 18 that assessing pay for positions once every eight to 10 years is unfair to elected officials. The COLA adjustments would ensure that salaries are increasing incrementally each year, Bidwell said.

“Otherwise, what you do is you get yourself into the situation we are in right now where suddenly you are eight years behind, you’re making adjustments that are huge and people are going, ‘What the heck, why is that so big?’, and the truth of the matter is, it’s actually not that big,” he said.

The advisory board made no changes to health insurance and retirement benefits available to all of the elected positions it analyzed, meaning these officials continue to be eligible to participate in that coverage should they choose. Northampton offers individual and family health plans and pays 80% of the insurance premiums.

The city currently spends nearly $121,200 to cover nine part-time elected officials — six councilors, one School Committee member and two Smith Vocational trustees — enrolled in municipal health care plans either as individuals or families.

The mayor would remain eligible for health and retirement plans because the position is full time.

The changes, if approved, would take effect Jan. 1, after the city’s next municipal election in November. The current council must OK the changes by June 30, or within the first 18 months of their term, for them to go into effect when the new term begins.

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