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Stipends in stone: Board pay and the city charter

November 04. 2013 4:49PM

Manchester voters are asked today to vote on nine changes to the city’s charter. Unfortunately, all nine must be approved or disapproved together. One of the proposals is so potentially damaging to city finances that the taxpayers would be justified in saying no to the whole lot.

The most eye-catching change is raising the mayor’s pay from $68,000 to $100,000 a year. There are police patrolmen and teachers who make more than the mayor. But aldermen can raise the mayor’s pay without a charter change, and they should do so.

The most troubling proposal is to set “stipends” for aldermen and school board members in the city charter. Right now, these elected officials receive stipends set by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen ($4,000 for aldermen, $2,000 for school board members). They also receive health and dental benefits, though they are part-time volunteers. The charter change would ban them from receiving benefits, but set their stipends at $9,000 for aldermen and $7,000 for school board members.

Voters are asked to guarantee a $224,000 annual payout without knowing how much this will cost or save them, as the city will not reveal how much it spends on board member health and dental care. Moreover, in the draft charter sent by the Charter Commission to the state for approval, this provision does not replace the existing provision authorizing aldermen to set the “salaries” for themselves and school board members. It is tacked on below it. Voters might approve this change to find that aldermen try in the future to vote themselves “salaries” on top of “stipends.”

We suspect that the real motivation here is to set a base level of board pay in the charter, where it can be “adjusted” for “cost of living” in the future without aldermen facing any political fallout. Right now aldermen have to vote on their own compensation, which provides accountability. Setting that pay in the charter removes the accountability and sets the stage for later upgrading the “stipends” to full-time pay.

Aldermen and school board members should not receive health benefits. But trading something they should not have for a charter-based guarantee of overly generous compensation is, in the long run, a bad deal. Taxpayers better protect themselves by electing aldermen who will vote to remove board members from the city’s health and dental plans.

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