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Concord attorney: NH town officials' salaries lack logic

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

August 12. 2017 8:24PM
Attorney Chuck Douglas has been working to reveal what he says are costly pay and benefits packages for municipal employees in New Hampshire. (DAVID SOLOMON/UNION LEADER)
How salaries stack up
Annual salaries (not including benefits) for New Hampshire’s highest paid city or town managers and police chiefs, and how they compare to state and federal officials:

CITY/TOWN MANAGERS/ADMINISTRATORS:*

Dover: Michael Joyal, $197,859
Portsmouth: John Bohenko, $181,508
Concord: Thomas Aspell, $179,810
Rochester: Daniel Fitzpatrick, $147,168
Derry: David Caron, $137,500

TOP 5 POLICE CHIEFS:*

Derry: Edward Garone, $199,664
Rochester: Michael Allen, $177,848
Manchester: Nick Willard, $152,156
Dover: Anthony Colarusso, $144,532
Nashua: Andrew Lavoie, $141,653

FEDERAL OFFICIALS:

U.S. Senator/Representative: $174,000
Cabinet members: $200,000

STATE OFFICIALS:

Governor: Chris Sununu, $110,419
HHS Commissioner: Jeffrey Meyers, $129,296
Attorney General: Gordon MacDonald, $128,259
Commissioner of Administrative Services: Charlie Arlinghaus, $125,554

*Source: Municipal records

CONCORD - Concord attorney Chuck Douglas is waging a one-man campaign against what he calls a runaway freight train - ever-escalating pay for municipal officials that is adding to the growing burden on local taxpayers and making it harder to hire for key state positions.

The former U.S. congressman, state Supreme Court judge and now head of the governor's Judicial Selection Commission has been quietly working in the background for the past two years, collecting details on municipal pay and benefits in New Hampshire cities and towns.

It started during his two years on the Bow budget committee, which just concluded.

"We got to talking about the town manager and superintendent salaries and I said, 'Well OK, I haven't got any recent numbers on what's going on around the state,' so I did some Right-to-Know requests."

Using the state's Right-to-Know law, he accumulated data on wages paid to city managers, police chiefs, fire chiefs, school superintendents, as well as rank-and-file officers and firefighters - anyone making more than $100,000 a year in salary and benefits.

The contrast between the pay for municipal employees, even rank-and-file, versus the pay for the highest-ranking state and federal officials, he said, is striking. Hundreds of city or town employees throughout the state make more than $100,000 a year, on salary alone, not counting hefty benefit packages and retirement opportunities.

In the town of Derry, a community of 33,000, with an annual budget of around $50 million, the average weekly wage is $819, or $42,588 annually, according to the state Department of Employment Security.

"Being police chief in Derry is not a bad gig," says Douglas, "with a salary of $199,000 you add in benefits and it's a $273,000 package, and their town administrator is making $137,000 with a total package of $191,000."

Contrast that with the head of Health and Human Services in New Hampshire, responsible for about half the state's $6 billion annual budget and the welfare of 1.3 million residents, not to mention hundreds of employees in multiple divisions.

"When you have someone like Jeffrey Meyers, who's a lawyer, a former governor's legal counsel, making about $130,000 running a massive agency, it's brutal. You couldn't pay me half a million dollars to do that job," said Douglas.

The state employs the services of consultants such as the Hay Group to establish salaries based on level of responsibility, while local pay rates are greatly influenced by longevity.

Derry Police Chief Edward B. Garone, the best-paid chief in the state, was recognized for 45 years of service in June, which was declared Chief Edward Garone Month by town fathers.

Logic is lacking

There is often no direct correlation at the municipal level between pay and factors like the size of a community or degree of responsibility.

"If you're looking at responsibilities, problems, or just size, Dover is 31,000 population and Manchester is roughly 100,000, but the police chiefs make almost the same," said Douglas. "I'm not saying the police chief in Manchester should make three times more, but the point is there is no rhyme nor reason to these numbers based on size of department or nature of the population."

Having monitored the issue for decades, Douglas believes part of the problem lies in the collective bargaining environment at the local level, in which the pay raises for police chiefs or fire chiefs are often linked to the raises their rank-and-file officers obtain through contract negotiations.

"What they do is piggyback on the union contracts," said Douglas. "They have no incentive to cut a tough deal with the employees. Their thinking is, 'If the employees get 3 percent and I make $140,000 already, that means I'm going to pick up another four grand next year."

He also cites the electoral power of the public employee unions in a community and the unwillingness of town councils or select boards to risk the disruption associated with taking a harder line.

Derry Town Administrator David Caron (formerly Londonderry's town manager) was just hired last year at a salary of $137,500 to replace Galen Stearns, who was fired from his $148,000-a-year job in an apparent dispute with the town council over budget cuts the council requested to reduce the town's high tax rate.

Family affairs

There is also an insiders' quality to municipal government in some communities, where people making the decisions about employee pay stand to benefit either directly or indirectly from the decisions they are making, Douglas said.

"Look at Manchester," Douglas said. "They (aldermen) break the tax cap with conflict-of-interest votes. You have two people who vote on raises who have relatives in the departments getting raises. When the wolf is watching the henhouse, things are ass-backward. It's morally wrong, the height of political arrogance, and it shows why things get worse every year."

The salaries are often justified by local officials who say the high rates of pay are either deserved by virtue of longevity, or necessary to attract the best talent in a competitive hiring environment.

The New Hampshire Municipal Association (NHMA) publishes a biannual Wage, Salary and Benefits Survey to aid local officials in setting compensation and benefits packages.

No one from the NHMA was available to comment on the effect the survey has had over the years on the pay and benefits for municipal employees throughout the state, as towns try to keep up with each other on an ever-inflating wage base.

Seeking some parity

If that same desire to attract the best and the brightest was applied at the state level, New Hampshire would have to increase its pay, especially for commissioners and department heads, to compete with other states and its own cities and towns, according to Douglas.

He plans to take this battle to the State House in the fall.

"I hope to do something in the way of a letter to the legislative leadership and the Senate Finance Committee and Fiscal Committee, because they owe a duty to the state taxpayers to get the best and the brightest, and I think they are unaware of the runaway local salary situation, and they are competing with that," he said, given the limited pool of people interested in working for government.

"They should start looking at some parity between New Hampshire school and town positions versus state government positions, where the responsibilities are a lot greater. When a police chief in New Hampshire makes as much as the Secretary of Defense, something is wrong."

That's not to suggest that local taxpayers should be resigned to the situation.

"The folks at the local level need to think about capping their executive salaries," Douglas said. "Their elected officials can certainly do it. That's the first line of defense - the aldermen, select board and school board."

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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