By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY — Amesbury public employees are paid significantly more on average than their counterparts in other Essex County communities, and according to new data released by the Pioneer Institute in Boston, the gap is growing wider.
Between 2005 and 2012, Amesbury’s employees saw their average earnings grow from $34,500 to $52,600, an increase of 52 percent, the data says. During that same period of time, the average earnings of public employees across Essex County rose from $30,800 to $39,700, an increase of about 29 percent.
By comparison, the average earnings of Newburyport public employees have held relatively steady since 2005. That year employees earned $38,600 on average, and the number subsequently dipped to $36,100 for two years before increasing to its current average of $41,400, the data says. The increase in Newburyport average salaries from 2005 to 2012 was about 7 percent. Newburyport was originally well over the Essex County average, but now only exceeds it by $1,700.
The figures come from MassPensions.com, the Pioneer Institute’s newly launched website, which aims to make public pension data more accessible to the public and draws most of its data from the Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission’s annual reports.
The annual earnings data is broken down by calendar year, includes both employee salaries and benefits and takes into account city workers and school administrators, but not teachers, according to Joseph Connarton, executive director of PERAC.
The numbers appear to back up a commonly voiced perception around Amesbury that city employees earn higher than average salaries. The point was frequently raised during this past budget season, and several members of the City Council expressed a desire to curtail certain highly paid officials’ salaries even though they lacked the power to do so.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer has countered this perception by pointing out that the city was recently able to realize $849,000 in health care savings during the last contract negotiations, meaning that even though salaries did increase, the city saved money on its overall personnel package.
Kezer said he couldn’t comment specifically on the Pioneer Institute data since he hadn’t seen it, but he speculated Amesbury’s reduction in staff levels over the past few years may have impacted the numbers, by reducing the number of lower-paid workers.
He also argued that many communities in Essex County have smaller public safety departments than Amesbury, which would mean fewer highly paid police and fire officials.
“When you’re looking at Essex County community averages, predominantly you have small communities that really don’t have much of a police department and fire department,” Kezer said. “So if you don’t have full-time fire or a sufficient staff of police, and all you have is the administrative folks in the Town Hall, that’s going to skew your numbers.”
There are 34 communities in Essex County, and Amesbury’s population of 16,300 sits near the higher end of the population spectrum. There are 19 communities with smaller populations.
Amesbury and Newburyport have near identical populations — Newburyport’s is about 1,000 residents larger — and their police and fire departments are almost the same size.
There is evidence in the Pioneer Institute’s data to suggest that Amesbury’s reduction in staff over the past several years may have impacted the numbers. In 2005, the city employed 307 workers, but in the years that followed, especially during the height of the recession, about 50 jobs were eliminated, most through layoffs. It’s most common for layoffs to be done by seniority, with higher-paid, longer-term employees being retained.
Amesbury’s rise in public employee average earnings follows a similar upward trend. Notably, when 24 city employees were laid off between 2009 and 2010, the city’s average earnings jumped from $39,000 to $45,000, which was a larger increase than Amesbury’s total increase between 2005 and 2009, when employment levels were mostly stable.
Layoffs do not fully explain the most recent increase in average earnings, however. From 2011 to 2012, Amesbury’s workforce only decreased by 12 people, but during that same period the average earnings increased from $45,000 to $52,600. The Pioneer Institute data does not provide an explanation for the increase.
Meanwhile, Essex County’s average salaries have been rising steadily despite employment levels remaining flat. Both Newburyport’s average salaries and its employment levels have been relatively consistent.