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On the public dime

Pay for councilors, aldermen varies widely between large and small cities, but civic officials all say the job requires more time than people realize

Medford city councilors meet at City Hall; the Medford council, which meets weekly for most of the year, is the highest paid in the region.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Medford city councilors meet at City Hall; the Medford council, which meets weekly for most of the year, is the highest paid in the region.

A Globe review of payroll data for councilors and aldermen in the 19 cities north of Boston puts Medford at the top — and Amesbury at the bottom — of the city council pay scale.

Medford councilors earn $27,529 per year, with higher pay given to the president and vice president. Amesbury councilors earn just $3,000 per year, with the president receiving a $1,000 stipend.

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At a recent meeting in Amesbury, the nine city councilors raised their hands, one by one, voting unanimously to approve licenses for new food businesses, such as Ooh La La Sweets and Kaeli-O-Kookies.

“Any samples?” joked Robert L. Gilday of District 1, the council’s vice chairman.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

Amesbury city councilors, at the bottom of the pay scale, raise their hands to approve a license for a new food business earlier this month.

The board meets on the second Tuesday of each month in the City Hall auditorium, where a 1908 fringe-top surrey is prominently displayed on a stage as a nod to the legacy of carriage-making in this city of 16,500 residents on the New Hampshire border.

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The pace is different about 40 miles away in Medford, where the City Council meets almost every Tuesday night in a City Hall auditorium richly appointed with wood and Palladian windows.

At one recent meeting, the seven-member board voted on a proposal to limit the number of taxi cab licenses in the city of almost 57,000 residents near Boston.

“Thirty-eight licenses is far too many for our community,” said Councilor Michael J. Marks.

City council races will be on the Nov. 5 municipal election ballot — along with candidates for mayor and school committee — across the region. Voters do not have a say in how much members of a city’s top elected board are paid, and the amount varies widely, according to data compiled through a public records request made by the Globe.

Councilors and aldermen — no matter how large or small their city — say they must attend multiple meetings and answer phone calls and e-mails from constituents, with complaints ranging from problem tree stumps and potholes, to tax bills and budget cuts.

Still, councilors in large, urban areas receive a bigger payday than their peers in smaller cities.

Somerville aldermen are paid $25,000 per year, plus $3,000 for expenses. William A. White Jr., chairman of the Somerville board, said he thinks the pay is justified.

“We have some of the most complex problems facing any community in the Commonwealth,” said White, a 16-year incumbent who is running for reelection. “We have urban renewal and the Green Line [MBTA] extension coming online, and a major development at Assembly Square. The demands of the job have increased right along with that.”

White, who as board president also serves on the School Committee for no additional pay, said that aldermen last year did not accept a $750 raise recommended by an outside consultant hired by the city to evaluate nonunion salaries. In 2006, a consultant’s study recommended aldermen be paid $29,267, but the board opted for a $25,000 salary, according to White.

“I think we just felt the figure was too high,” he said.

In Melrose, aldermen are paid $4,000each year, and receive an additional $1,000 for expenses. Methuen councilors are paid $4,800, and Newburyport councilors earn $5,000. Malden councilors receive $17,500, while Lawrence councilors earn $17,000 annually.

In Everett, where the bicameral Common Council and Board of Aldermen is in its final months, the 11 new city councilors will be paid $15,000 — plus $4,000 for expenses annually — starting in January, according to City Clerk Michael Matarazzo.

As elected officials, councilors and aldermen are eligible to receive health insurance, unless prohibited by a local ordinance or charter. In Everett, for example, a new charter bars councilors from receiving health insurance.

The Globe review found councilors in eight of the 19 cities receive health insurance, with the numbers enrolled varying in each community. For example, only one Medford councilor receives the benefit; Seven of nine Woburn councilors are in the municipal health group, which can cost the city as much as $18,187 per councilor annually for a family plan.

How a city council or board of alderman sets its pay varies widely. State law requires each body to set its own salary, but a change may not take effect until the following calendar year. In some cities, such as Medford and Revere, councilors receive a base pay, and increases based on those received by the mayor.

In some other cities, such as Salem, councilors receive a percentage of the mayor’s pay. In Peabody, councilors that are elected in November will be paid $9,450, or 9 percent of Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s $105,000 salary.

“I look at it really as a cost-of-living increase,” said Peabody Ward 5 Councilor David Gamache, who is retiring this year after 24 years on the board. “And, really, it’s more fair. A councilor probably does 10 percent of the work that a mayor does, so they should receive 10 percent of that salary.”

But setting their pay can be a thorny issue for local councilors, particularly in a weak economy.

“I’ll never bring it up again,” said Amesbury council president Anne R. Ferguson, who proposed a pay raise last July.

Ferguson suggested raising councilors’ pay to $5,000 per year, which would put them on par with what councilors in Newburyport and other similarly sized cities earn, she said.

But amid heated budget talks, the proposal never made it out of a council committee.

“I didn’t think it was an unreasonable request,” said Ferguson, who is running for a fourth two-year term next month. Along with a regular monthly meeting, councilors often attend committee meetings at least once or twice a week, Ferguson said.

“Yes, we’re a small city, but we’re charged with making huge decisions, which will affect us for a long time. We hold the purse strings to the city budget, and we’re making a little over $200 per month?”

In Medford, the City Council changed how it is paid last year. Instead of receiving two payments, for salary and expenses, the amount was rolled into a single payment, making it all taxable income, officials said.

Councilors typically receive the same pay raise awarded to the mayor and other department heads. But last year the council voted to decline a 1 percent offer, said council president Robert A. Maiocco.

“We were the only body [of employees] that didn’t receive a raise,” said Maiocco, who is retiring this year after 30 years in office. “I voted for the raise. I felt the council deserved a small increase in the salary.”

Maiocco, whose salary is $30,520, noted Medford councilors all are elected citywide, meaning they represent all residents. The board meets every Tuesday night, except for July and August, when meetings are held once per month, and September, when there are two meetings.

“It’s a part-time job that I give 100 percent effort to,” said Maiocco, who stopped to inspect a problem tree stump on a local street before assuming the podium. “I can’t count the hours we put in. It’s more than meeting every Tuesday at City Hall.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at katherine.mccabe@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.
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