Braintree Town Councilor Dan Clifford said he and some of his colleagues took a look at their overloaded meeting calendars and wondered, “What are we doing?”
As a member of two of the council’s most demanding committees — Ways and Means, and Rules and Ordinances — Clifford said, he and a few others attend 80 or 90 meetings a year on top of council meetings twice a month.
The heavy schedule prompted him to ask the council last month to consider increasing the annual $5,000 stipend for members assigned to committees that meet the most frequently.
In a Globe review of payroll data in 48 cities and towns south of Boston, Braintree’s $5,000 stipend per councilor comes in sixth highest (tied with Avon’s) among communities that pay their councilors or selectmen. Weymouth takes the top spot among towns at $7,500 a year per councilor.
Quincy and Brockton, the only two cities among the 48 communities, pay councilors annual salaries of $17,500 and $10,000, respectively, according to payroll data.
Of the communities surveyed, 16 offer no annual compensation to their town councilors or selectmen.
Some observers contend that the pay offered to councilors and selectmen is not proportional to the amount of time many put into the job, from going to meetings and community events, to fielding concerns and complaints daily from the residents they represent. Others argue that compensation for civic service should not be expected in what should essentially be a volunteer job, because it could attract people to run for the wrong reasons.
Soon after he requested the stipend increase for Braintree councilors serving in committees with the heaviest schedules, Clifford said, he caught wind of what he described as “informal discussions” that perhaps every councilor should get a pay bump. He soon decided it would be best to withdraw his request.
“My initial thought was maybe we can incent some people to sign up for these committees if we increase the compensation,” he said. “But the more I thought of it, if more people are going to serve because of the increase in compensation, what does that say about why they’re serving in government? I talked myself right out of it. Quite frankly, we’re here as volunteers for all intents and purposes.”
Fellow Councilor Charles Kokoros said he spends a minimum of 20 to 30 hours a week on issues relating to town politics, particularly because of his accessibility to residents at his dry-cleaning business in town. Still, he said asking for a raise oftentimes doesn’t bode well with voters.
“I look at the economy and other people out there struggling, and I think it sends the wrong message,” Kokoros said. “It’s something that we choose to do. . . . Local government is not about money.”
Joseph R. Pacheco, chairman of the three-member Raynham Board of Selectmen, said their $6,199.20 annual pay may appear high for a town of about 14,000 residents, but he said he spends an average of 20 hours a week on town business. In Raynham and a number of other small towns, selectmen serve as the executive branch, in charge of union negotiations and setting policy, as well as acting as the health and licensing authority.
“I have more power as a selectman than most mayors do,” Pacheco said. “None of us are doing it for the money. We love the community and do it for public service. . . . I wouldn’t say we need to get paid more. [That’s] been a non-issue.”
Joshua Ostroff, president of the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association, said compensation is up to individual communities and can range from zero to thousands of dollars per elected official per year. The majority of councilors and selectmen have outside employment.
“No one makes money being a volunteer in local government, and even if you’re paid a few thousand dollars, it’s essentially a volunteer job; you’re basically working for less than minimum wage to serve the community,” Ostroff said. “For some it is absolutely a financial sacrifice. . . . The time demands of the job are more significant than the forgone income. It’s hard for people to afford 10 to 20 hours a week of volunteer service.”
Some elected officials also receive fringe benefits such as additional compensation for members serving as chairmen or presidents of their elected bodies; allowances for expenses; and, unless otherwise prohibited by local bylaw or ordinance, eligibility to participate in the municipality’s health insurance plans.
Of the 48 communities surveyed by the Globe, 18 pay chairmen and presidents larger sums, ranging from an additional $100 a year for the Board of Selectmen chairman in Sharon to $2,500 more for the council president in Braintree. Seven communities offer stipends for expenses, from $220 in West Bridgewater to $4,800 in Quincy.
Only 15 of the surveyed communities make health insurance available to councilors and selectmen, although not every member chooses to enroll, according to municipal officials.
In Kingston, for instance, only one of the five selectmen is enrolled in one of the health insurance plans at an annual cost to the town of $4,572. In Brockton, a councilor enrolled in the best family plan costs the city $18,828 a year.
Colleen Corona, chairwoman of Easton’s Board of Selectmen and a district representative for the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Association, said the town voted about seven years ago to prohibit elected officials from being eligible for health care because of the significant costs associated with it. Easton selectmen receive $1,800 a year for their service, a sum Corona said may not be enough to cover all the expenses associated with the position, but with which she is satisfied.
“There is a significant time commitment, but it’s something I really love doing,” said Corona, adding she spends a minimum of 15 hours a week on town business. “This is definitely a job you do not do for the money.”
Statewide, she said, she has seen a few communities eliminating or reducing pay for councilors and selectmen, presumably because of the economy.
In 2009, Carver selectmen voted unanimously to cut their annual stipend in half from $1,800 to $900 for the chairman, and from $1,550 to $775 for the rest. In Duxbury, where the chairman would get $2,000 a year and the other two members $1,500, none have accepted the payments for two to three years, said Susan Kelley, the board’s executive assistant.
Although this trend might have caught on during the recession, it should not continue, said Philip E. Lemnios, Hull town manager.
Stipends, as long as they’re not attached to health insurance, are relatively low for the amount of work that many councilors and selectmen put in, he argued. Having some pay could be an incentive for more people from a wider range of social and economic backgrounds to run for office.
“It’s an opportunity for folks who have to arrange for child care and things of this nature,” he said. “For those communities eliminating stipends, I would say, are you putting in place a situation where people say, ‘I’m not going to get involved’? Only those who are financially able to get involved will do so.”