NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 26, 2013

Mayor disputes report's salary figures

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — Mayor Thatcher Kezer is pushing back against reports that Amesbury’s average public employee earnings far exceed the county average, arguing that the data in question doesn’t take the city’s benefit and health care savings into account while misidentifying the numbers attributed to Essex County as a whole.

Last week the Pioneer Institute, an independent public policy research group based in Boston, launched a new website called MassPensions.com. The website’s primary function is to make pension data more available for the public, but the site also features information regarding average employee salaries for communities around the state.

According to the MassPensions data, Amesbury’s average earnings in 2012 was $52,600, while Essex County’s was $39,700, but Kezer’s primary concern is that the data attributed to Essex County actually reflected the members of the Essex Regional Retirement System — which includes 19 towns, six school districts, 17 housing authorities and six special districts — and is therefore not the correct average.

Beside taking issue with the Pioneer Institute’s misidentification, Kezer added that the 19 towns that are part of the regional system are much smaller than Amesbury and offer a significantly lower level of service, making it an apples to oranges comparison.

“Those communities that have a volunteer fire department, for instance, it’s going to pull the average way down, so there is no comparison,” Kezer said. “So to make any comparison to any community that has no similar profile is just unfair.”

While Kezer is correct in his assertion that the Pioneer Institute’s data doesn’t reflect the actual average earnings of Essex County employees, PERAC’s annual reports indicate that the average earnings for city employees in Amesbury are still among the highest in the county, and have been growing at a faster rate than other local communities.

Last year, Amesbury’s average earnings were higher than all but one of the 15 Essex County communities that aren’t a part of the Essex Regional system, according to PERAC’s 2012 annual report. Peabody was at the top of the list ($53,000), but Amesbury ranked ahead of communities like Andover ($49,100), Gloucester ($45,700), Haverhill ($40,800), Lawrence ($42,500) and Methuen ($48,800).

By comparison, Amesbury’s average earnings of $34,500 in 2005 were the fourth lowest among that same group. Only Haverhill, Lawrence and Swampscott had lower average salaries than Amesbury at that point, and since then the city has moved up 10 spots on the list.

Kezer also bristled at the comparison to Newburyport, whose average employee earnings is $41,400 compared to Amesbury’s $52,600. He argued that while Amesbury’s average is higher, Newburyport has about 100 more employees and a total payroll $1.6 million higher than Amesbury despite the same level of service.

“From my perspective, what matters to the taxpayers the most is where is the end dollar,” Kezer said. “So the mere fact that I can run a city the same size as our neighbors with the same level of service, and can have a payroll that is $1.6 million less, that’s an incredible success story.”

The figures in question come from MassPensions.com, a new website launched last week by the Pioneer Institute. The website gathers most of its data from the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission, which said its annual reports are based on the calendar year and take both salaries and benefits into account when compiling employee salary data.

Kezer disputed the benefit aspect, arguing that many things like health care wouldn’t have been taken into account since they normally don’t fall within PERAC’s purview.

“PERAC has nothing to do with health insurance and stipends; all these numbers are driven from that portion of the salary that’s eligible for pension calculations,” Kezer said. “That’s all that is, and that’s why I question what their definition of benefits is.”

As far as determining an actual Essex County average, the fact that individual figures aren’t available for the 19 Essex communities in the regional system is problematic, as is the fact that the Essex Regional average includes other non-municipal entities as well.

While an exact figure can’t be calculated, it is possible to estimate a figure by taking the average earnings of the 15 Essex communities laid out in PERAC’s annual report and assigning each of the 19 remaining communities with the regional system’s 2012 average of $39,700.

In this scenario, the average earnings for all of Essex County would come out to somewhere around $43,000, which is still below Amesbury’s average, though not by as much as the Pioneer Institute data would have suggested.

Regardless, Kezer said his philosophy has been to save on the total package, and the way he’s done that is by negotiating savings on health care in exchange for higher salaries.

“Everybody complains about the current structure of municipal government based on supposedly lowball salaries with expensive benefits, and what we’re doing in Amesbury is leading the way in reforming that,” Kezer said. “We’re moving most of the benefits into the salary range and out of the benefit range, and the net result has been savings.”