By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Following several hours of occasionally contentious discussion, the Finance Committee voted to recommend granting salary increases to both the City Council and the mayor during last night’s meeting.
Originally the City Council was supposed to convene immediately following the Finance Committee meeting to take a final vote, but due to the late hour and the absence of Councilor Christian Scorzoni, city councilors decided to table the vote until next Wednesday, June 26, at 5 p.m.
The proposal initially put forth by Council President Anne Ferguson called for city councilors’ salaries to increase from $3,000 to $7,500, with the council president’s salary rising from $4,500 to $9,500. Councilor Bob Gilday proposed that the raises be reduced to $5,200 and $6,500 respectively, tantamount to $100 a week.
Similarly, the proposal to grant the mayor a raise from $80,000 to $97,000 was also reduced to $90,000. Both proposals were endorsed by a vote of 5-3, with councilors Derek Kimball, Bob Lavoie, Allen Neale, Ferguson and Gilday voting in favor, while councilors Donna McClure, Jim Kelcourse and Joseph McMilleon voted against.
The discussion surrounding the issue largely centered on whether councilors or the mayor deserved to get raises, with those on the council in support of the raises arguing that the job currently doesn’t pay at a level that meets the heavy demands of the job, while those against felt it was inappropriate for councilors or the mayor to be getting big raises when everyone else in town is trying to make do with less.
The majority of the 20 to 30 residents in attendance spoke against both raises, and McClure summed up their sentiment when she said the timing of the proposal was inappropriate, especially coming so soon after the budget hearing.
“It is absolutely inappropriate to tell the schools to hold your horses, and we’ve raised the government side by the smallest of increases,” she said. “But now we’re going to say to the taxpayers, ‘How about a raise?’ I’m actually shocked that we’re having this discussion two days after the budget hearing.”
Many in attendance also objected to the fact that councilors were proposing a 150 percent raise, arguing that people in the private sector would never see such a raise.
McMilleon, who was against the proposal, tried to temper this sentiment by pointing out that the council wasn’t voting on raises for themselves, but for whoever holds the office in the future. He added that the money the councilors make compared to other department heads, whose salaries are often criticized as being way too high, isn’t even in the same ballpark.
“To put this raise in the same category as the other contracts we have in this community is absurd; there is no comparison,” McMilleon said. “I’m not going to vote for this because of the perception issue, because I don’t think it sends the right message at this time.”
Prior to the meeting, Ferguson provided the other councilors with data sheets detailing the salaries of all the mayors and city councilors in Massachusetts, and her point was that Amesbury’s mayor and councilors are among the lowest paid in the state, in some cases by a fairly wide margin.
According to Ferguson, Kezer’s current $80,000 annual salary is tied with two others at No. 34 out of 46 mayors in Massachusetts, and is below the statewide average of $97,168 per year. That average does not include the mayors of Worcester ($34,000), Lowell ($20,000) and Cambridge ($105,000), who are each elected from the City Council as part of their city’s “Plan E” form of municipal government.
Within Essex County, Kezer is also on the low end of the totem poll, as he and Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni each have the second lowest mayoral salary in the county, ahead of only Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.
Kirk, however, is set to see her salary rise from $75,000 to $100,000 next year if she wins re-election, as will Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday ($85,000 to $97,000) and Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt ($95,000 to $105,000). These increases will boost the average Essex County mayoral salary from $89,393 to $94,193.
The average city councilor’s salary is more difficult to calculate, because in many communities the council salary appears in a single budget line item and doesn’t specify whether all the councilors are paid the same or if the council president earns more, Ferguson said.
If you take 15 communities where this is the case and find their average salary, and then average those with the remaining 29 communities whose city council salary data is available, then the average salary statewide comes out to $13,777, which is significantly higher than Amesbury city councilors’ $3,000 annual salaries.
In fact, Amesbury is tied with Easthampton as having the third lowest paid city councilors in the state. The only communities whose city councilors are paid less is Greenfield, which had a population of 17,456 as of the 2010 census and pays its councilors $2,692 on average, and North Adams, which is the least populous city in the state at 13,708 and pays its councilors $1,520 on average.
McClure rebutted by pointing out that there are sizable differences in populations, home values and total budgets between Amesbury and many of the other cities around Essex County and the state, but ultimately the majority of the councilors seemed to agree with Ferguson’s case.