, Newburyport, MA

January 9, 2013

Seabrook police, fire chiefs settle contracts

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK — The recent signing of employment contracts for fire and police chiefs have some concerned about the size of their salaries compared with those who served before them.

Contracts approved and signed by all three selectmen and Town Manager Joe Titone show annual salaries for fire Chief Everett Strangman at $95,000 and police Chief Lee Bitomske at $105,000. Both salaries are more that those of the men who formerly held the positions before their retirements. Retired police Chief Pat Manthorn earned $82,400 in 2011, according to the Town Report, and retired fire Chief Jeff Brown earned $89,900.

But according to Titone, who negotiated the salaries, the new contracts with Stangman and Bitomske also include an important new measure that should save taxpayers money in the future in the form of an 800-hour cap on the amount of unused annual leave both men can cash in when they retire. There was no such cap on prior contracts with the police and fire chiefs, Titone said.

The new contracts prevent the practice known as “pension spiking,” Titone said, which occurs when longtime police or fire employees accrue huge amounts of unused leave days, then cash out right before they retire to inflate their annual pension.

A well-publicized example of pension spiking occurred last year, Titone said, when Portsmouth’s police chief, Lou Ferland, retired and cashed out more than $84,000 of accumulated leave. The move inflated Ferland’s last year’s salary figures used to calculate pensions. The result earned him an annual pension of about $97,000, which Portsmouth taxpayers will help fund.

Both Strangman and Bitomske said they were aware prior to negotiating their salaries with Titone that town officials wanted to limit their leave cash-out capacity.

“I knew they wanted to stop the bleeding and have the chiefs sign contracts that would eliminate the ability to accumulate unlimited amounts of leave at the end of our tenure so we couldn’t spike our pensions,” Bitomske said. “The cap will save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for years and years to come.”

Bitomske said before meeting with Titone, he did a little research on what other chiefs were earning in similar-sized communities with similar infrastructures. He found in Lakes Region towns of Belmont, Guilford and Meredith, chiefs were earning from $91,000 to almost $100,000 in 2011, figures that could have risen in 2012. Closer to home, the police chiefs in nearby Hampton and Exeter earned $92,000 and $100,000 in 2011, respectively.

According to Titone, Manthorn never negotiated annual rises in his salary during his four-year tenure, leaving his salary pretty much the same until he retired last year.

Titone said when compared to what other police chiefs are earning, the busy pace of the Seabrook department and the burden the nuclear power plant places on all the town’s emergencies services, he believes the police chief’s salary, as well as the fire chief’s salary, are justified.

“Given what they both gave up with the cap and its effect on their pension, I think the salaries are fair,” Titone said. “The cap will save the town a lot of money for many years to come.”

Strangman said he was willing to agree to the cap because it’s good for the town, and he’s pleased with his salary. But, he added, he did speak with Titone recently when he discovered there’s a $10,000 disparity between his salary and Bitomske’s.

Both men are allowed a minimum salary increase of $1,560 annually on April 1 of 2013, 2014 and 2015.

In Strangman’s contract the town agreed to a $400 per month travel expense for the use of his personal vehicle. In Bitomske’s, the town agreed to provide him with a cruiser to take home, but in the event the cruiser isn’t available, he would also get $400 per month should he have to use his own car.

Both Strangman and Bitomske must live in Seabrook. Strangman already does and Bitomske, a Hampton resident, must move to Seabrook within 12 months of his appointment as chief, which was in November.

Other portions of the chiefs’ contracts are “boiler plate,” Titone said, and represent the terms found in the Seabrook Supervisory Employees Union contract, which relates to the other department heads.

Both men will receive 31 days vacation leave, because they’ve worked in town for more than 16 years. Both may buy out as of Dec. 31 of each year if unable to use the 31 days. At termination of their contract, however, they agreed to cap that buyout for unused leave at not more than 800 hours.

The chiefs accrue sick leave at the rate of 1 1/4 days per month up to a maximum of 100 days. They can be paid upon request up to 50 percent of the present value of accrued sick leave at any time of the year.

They both get three days personal leave each year, which must be used or lost during the calendar year.

They get the same holidays, insurance, professional and educational benefits as all other union employees. They are both subject to performance evaluations at least once a year and can be terminated for cause as applicable to the union contracts.