METHUEN — This community on the New Hampshire border may be smaller than 772 other American cities, but the salary of police Chief Joseph Solomon is anything but small. His salary of $326,707 in 2019 made Solomon one of the highest-paid police chiefs in the nation, paid more than his counterparts in Boston, New York, Chicago, and many other major urban areas.
And, unlike them, Solomon doesn’t have to face a serious crime problem: Methuen had one murder last year.
Still, Solomon believes he is underpaid.
He is refusing to take 10 unpaid furlough days to help the cash-strapped city work down a $7 million shortfall. He is the only department head to refuse the request from the city’s mayor, Neil Perry, who recently cut his own pay from $80,000 to $68,000 a year.
“Its a slap in the face of a city that is currently dealing with a 13 percent unemployment rate,” said D.J. Beauregard, a Methuen city councilor. “It’s absurdly disproportionate for the chief of a department of about 100 employees to be making one of the highest salaries in the nation.”
A defiant Solomon has said that, until he settles a pay dispute with the city, he won’t give up any of his income. Under Solomon’s unusual and complex five-year contract — which gives him a myriad of perks and a guarantee he is paid at least 2.6 times more than any patrol officer — the chief believes Methuen has underpaid him by at least $50,000 a year since 2018.
“I’m not in a position to be able to . . . forgo anything at this point,” Solomon told the host of a local Facebook live show in early July.
In a time when COVID-19 is crippling city finances and the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota has heightened scrutiny of spending on police, Solomon is holding out for higher pay even as he hands out layoff slips to his officers.
The city budget called for the layoff of eight police officers, though the mayor used reserve funds to rescind the layoffs of four of them. The other four, with a combined salary of about $274,000, include the city’s only Black patrolman. The patrolmen’s union is trying to save their jobs.
Solomon has so far declined to speak publicly — even to his own city councilors — about his pay, including the amount he would be owed if he left the force. At virtual City Council meetings, Solomon directs questions about his pay to his lawyer, city officials said. Because his contract is so complex, councilors say they have no idea what he may be owed.
He also has not responded to the council’s request that he reconsider his refusal to take furlough days, only acknowledging that he received the request. Councilors e-mailed Solomon on July 10 asking that he “earnestly consider putting service above self” to help avoid police layoffs.
Solomon also did not return phone calls from The Boston Globe or respond to requests for an interview sent through a spokesman.
But Methuen officials say Solomon, who has been chief for 18 years, has them in a bind. His contract says he can be fired only for just cause, and, even if they did terminate him, the city could owe Solomon $1 million or more to settle contract issues, while also running the risk Solomon will sue, as he has done before.
So they are trying to shame him instead.
For many in this city of 51,000, the fight over the furlough days is just the latest chapter in a running battle with Solomon dating to at least 2008, when then-mayor William Manzi fired him for alleged offenses including mismanaging grant money and engaging in conflicts of interest. But the state civil service commission reduced Solomon’s punishment to a one-year suspension without pay, saying almost all of the charges “proved to be wholly without merit” and that Manzi had acted on “personal bias and political considerations.”
Since then, Solomon has clashed repeatedly with city officials, suing them for wrongful termination, collecting a $195,000 settlement in 2014. Solomon suggested to Tom Duggan, host of the podcast and show on Facebook called “Paying Attention,” that he’s still sore over the “upheaval that occurred to my family” more than a decade ago.
Since then, Solomon’s compensation has grown, helped enormously by the 2017 contract that the former mayor now acknowledges he didn’t fully understand when he signed it. The contract gives the chief every benefit of a patrol officer, such as extra pay for working at night or wearing a body camera, while also guaranteeing him a raise whenever patrolmen get one. In the 2019 fiscal year, Solomon received $23,120 in night differential payments alone and another $1,200 for passing a fitness test.
“I would never have given that exorbitant amount if I had known,” said the former mayor, Stephen Zanni.
But the consequences have been long-lasting. In 2018, Solomon told the city his salary was $375,458, according to a letter from the mayor at the time, James Jajuga. But Jajuga said Solomon’s calculation was inflated and the city couldn’t afford that amount, so he appropriated $291,442 for the chief.
In 2019, Solomon’s pay increased to nearly $327,000, a function of pay raises negotiated with the patrolmen’s union, according to city records. City records show he was paid $305,000 in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2020.
There’s no authoritative ranking of police chief salaries, but a survey of 20 major cities by The Business Journals shows that in 2018, Solomon’s salary was higher than any of the chiefs except then-Los Angeles police Commissioner Charles Beck, who received $349,565.
In Massachusetts, Solomon makes more than the leaders of the state’s two largest police forces: Boston police Commissioner William Gross, who makes $260,000, and State Police Colonel Chris Mason, who earns around $240,000.
For his part, Solomon has claimed that he is not even the highest-paid chief in Massachusetts, though he did not identify who is.
Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute on Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said it’s rare for a police chief to be the highest-paid employee in their city — and rarer still for a small-city police chief to be among the best-paid law enforcement officers in the country.
“There is a certain amount of tone deafness, as people around the country struggle to find what the right relationship with the police department is,” said McDevitt in an interview. “For someone to be in a situation where they’re seemingly making money that could be going to other purposes in an era where people are talking about defunding the police seems a little incongruous.”
But being police chief is not Solomon’s only job. He also co-owns a private investigation company with 62 employees — even though he is required under his Methuen contract to be available “24/7.” The company, Eagle Investigation Services, offers training to people looking for a gun permit, permits that police chiefs like Solomon approve as part of their duties. The company received a federal coronavirus payroll protection grant of between $150,000 and $350,000, according to federal records.
Brash and self-confident, Solomon knows his behavior angers others. But he doesn’t seem to mind. “I’m one of the people you either love me or hate me,” he said on the Facebook show.
However, he doesn’t like it when city councilors attack him publicly. His lawyer recently threatened to sue them personally if they continued to “slander” him by accusing him of mismanagement.
“We just want accountability‚” said Councilor Steve Saba. “We didn’t ask to be put in this situation. We’re here fighting for the taxpayers. We’re relentlessly fighting for what is right.”
For all the rancor, Solomon has survived repeated investigations into his conduct. In 2006 and 2007 he was investigated by the FBI for mismanaging federal funds by doling out grant money to a select group of superior officers, and for other alleged criminal offenses. Some Methuen police officers wore recording devices to gather evidence against him.
In the end, Solomon was never charged criminally. But he was fired, later reduced to a suspension, and Methuen was ordered to repay nearly $200,000 to the federal government. Solomon acknowledges being reported to the FBI, state and federal inspectors general, the district attorney, and the attorney general. He was never charged by any of them.
“I think we’ve been vetted and flushed enough that [everyone] knows there’s no criminal activity,” he told Duggan on the Facebook Live show. “You can’t argue we don’t run a great Police Department here. "
Methuen officials, who say the unaffordable wage bill for the Police Department is the biggest issue facing the city, seem resigned to the fact that Solomon is not going anywhere. He still has two years left on his contract, and if he were fired or retired, he would be looking at a payout that officials fear could cripple the city.
Solomon is entitled to cash out unused vacation, sick pay, personal time, and something called contractual time. City officials say they don’t know exactly how much the bill would be, because he keeps his own records. They have asked him for a full accounting, but haven’t gotten it yet, they said.
And officials believe he will also demand the disputed pay from at least 2018 — around $50,000 a year.
All told, they suspect he would request at least $1 million; and that doesn’t count the $200,000-plus pension he would be entitled to. He would probably sue if the city rejected his demands, officials believe.
Former mayor Zanni admits that he never realized the cost of Solomon’s contract or a similar contract that he signed in 2017 that would have paid Methuen’s five police captains more than $400,000 a year. That contract, which generated local outrage, is in limbo while an arbitrator decides whether it can be enforced.
But Zanni points out that City Council members approved both contracts, too, and raised few questions. All of the members from 2017 have left the council.
The current mayor, Neil Perry, has appointed an outside auditor to look at the Police Department, reviewing all policies and practices, including allegations of favoritism against Solomon.
“We have to separate fact from fiction,” said Perry.
Although he has no plans to cut Solomon’s pay, Perry believes the chief’s salary should be closer to $180,000 or $190,000.
“Is it a tough job? You betcha,” said Perry. “But I’m just looking at the job. It’s nothing personal.”
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.