Municipal pay hard to tweak
Salaries make up about 70 percent of budgets and rising
CAPITAL REGION Salaries for municipal employees locally often are higher than those for private employment — on average — which is a sensitive topic in a time of great tax anxiety and poor job market.
Hard-pressed taxpayers foot the bills and make the irate phone calls while county, town and village officials have to build budgets, placate workers and keep the roads paved and plowed.
Salaries make up about 70 percent of local budgets, and they continue to rise. They are also a factor in pension costs because they are based on an average of the three highest years of salary.
Tim Hoefer, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center think tank, said salaries continue to rise at the same time that municipalities are saying they have no money. “Where is the breaking point and what do we do when we get there?” he asked.
The structure of union contracts makes it difficult to reduce the payroll, according to Hoefer. Many contracts have “last in, first out” policies that makes more senior employees — generally the highest paid — have priority over newer hires during layoffs.
“It makes it harder to reduce your payroll as much as you want to without letting more people go,” he said.
Elected officials blame contracts, the need to attract people to positions and even the decrease in staff for higher-than-average municipal salaries. These salaries tend to be higher than the median salaries of $35,596 in Schenectady County and $36,476 in Saratoga County, according to the American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Figures in this article are based on an analysis by the Empire Center for New York State Policy.
Scotia’s firefighters, Glenville’s municipal employees and Schenectady County workers are among the highest paid in the Capital Region.
Glenville had the highest average salary, at $54,708, for its 64 municipal employees and the fifth-highest salary at $90,582 for its 19 police officers during the one-year period from April 1, 2011 through March 31, 2012.
Scotia ranked first in highest average firefighter salary, at $70,303, and third-highest municipal salary, at $37,604. The average salary for a Schenectady County government employee was $51,046 — nearly $5,000 more than the next-highest average salary, Albany County, at $46,356.
The Empire Center study defined the Capital Region as Albany, Columbia, Greene, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren and Washington counties. Fulton, Hamilton, Herkimer, Montgomery, Oneida and Schoharie counties make up the Mohawk Valley region.
Glenville Supervisor Chris Koetzle said he believes the Empire Center data doesn’t tell the whole story. He pointed out that many of Glenville’s departments don’t have secretaries, clerks and other lower-paid jobs.
“We have an older, seasoned workforce that doesn’t have a lot of lower-paying positions,” he said. “That kind of skews the employee pay.”
He suggested that when there is eventually more turnover, the average salary will begin to drift downward.
Glenville has a smaller workforce and total payroll than some other communities in the Capital Region, according to Koetzle. The town’s municipal payroll is about $3.6 million compared with about $4.6 million for Rotterdam, $5.6 million for Niskayuna and Guilderland at $8.6 million. Glenville has about 30,000 people, according to the latest census, and yet has fewer municipal employees than other suburban Schenectady County towns, Koetzle said.
Koetzle said that during the past three years, Glenville reduced its labor force from 101 employees to 94. The town cut its town administrator position, made its receiver of taxes part time, changed the town attorney to a contract position instead of a staff person and left unfilled some vacant positions.
Koetzle also faulted the report for not looking at fringe benefits. Unlike some other towns, Glenville does not offer paid health insurance coverage for its retired police officers if they are not yet 55.
Koetzle said another factor that affects the average salary in Glenville is payouts for retirees’ unused sick leave.
The town had about six in the past year. In 2011, for example, retired Detective William Gallop earned a base salary of $52,031 and nearly $70,000 in other compensation including retroactive pay, longevity, overtime and clothing allowance and a $41,000 cash out of unused sick time.
A veteran staff, especially in its fire department, was also the reason for Scotia’s high salaries.
“Within five years you’ll see us go to the bottom of the list because all our guys are old,” said Mayor Kris Kastberg. “We’ve got a bunch of firefighters who are eligible or soon to be eligible for retirement.”
Police and fire officials can retire and receive a pension after 20 years of service or upon reaching the age of 62. Generally, municipal employees are able to retire at 62.
Kastberg believes the village salary for municipal workers is in line with other villages of similar geographic size. He said the village had to offer a competitive salary to retain its firefighters because they were leaving to go to Schenectady after having gone through the fire academy at the village’s expense.
“To hire and train a new person year after year is even more of a burden,” he said.
In addition, the village in 2010 starting having paramedic coverage on all shifts, which is more expensive but has been successful.
A lot of municipalities are looking to save money in health care to offset the cost of giving raises for the employees.
Schenectady County has been able to offer its employees raises because it has been able to keep its health care costs relatively flat during the last five years, according to spokesman Joe McQueen.
The county created a procedure under which employees purchased prescription drugs from Canada and switched workers to different health insurance plans.
McQueen said the county’s health care costs would have been $11 million higher if the county had not implemented those changes. The cost of providing raises for the employees is about $6 million, which still leaves a savings of about $5.5 million.
McQueen said the county has reduced its staff by 22 percent since 2004. It has offered its veteran employees retirement incentives ranging from $8,000 to $12,000.
The goal of that incentive is to encourage highly paid employees to retire, allowing the county to consolidate those positions, make them part time or hire someone at a lower salary, according to McQueen.
Consequently, some employees have seen an increase in their salary as positions have been consolidated. There are fewer jobs, but the people in those jobs are earning higher wages, McQueen said.
The county eliminated its airport commissioner and placed that responsibility under the director of public works.
When Health Commissioner Dr. David Pratt left, the positions of commissioner, director of patient services and assistant director of patient services were merged into a director of public health. The county will contract out a part-time medical director position. The total savings is $230,000, according to McQueen.
To control costs even further, the county has reduced salaries for new hires. At the Glendale Home, the county in July approved a new contract with its labor unions implementing a wage scale that is 10 percent lower than the previous agreement.
“As new employees come in, they will be starting at a lower salary.” McQueen said, “We’ve done a lot of things to still save taxpayers’ dollars.”
Other municipalities have trimmed staff and changed benefit packages to offset the growth in wages.
Clifton Park has renegotiated its union contracts to switch to cheaper health insurance options. This year, the town’s cost of health insurance is decreasing about 20 percent from $1.49 million to $1.16 million, according to Supervisor Phil Barrett.
At the same time, the town has reduced the number of full-time employees by 10 in recent years by not filling positions or making positions part time, The Empire Center study had the listed the town’s employment at 119. In this year’s budget, they laid off a planner and next year, the town is making its community development position part time.
“We continue to ask our current employees to do more with less. At the same time, we’ve continued to invest in our employees with raises,” Barrett said.
Still, workers with a lot of seniority are pulling up the average salary for Clifton Park at $46,448 — the fourth-highest in the Capital Region.
Barrett said the town has 71 employees with 10 years or more of service and 28 employees with 15 years or more.
“This trend will continue. We have several people who have been here for 20 years or more that are still in their late 40s, early 50s,” he said.
Barrett said that Clifton Park’s payroll is less on a per-capita basis than other Capital Region towns.
The town with the largest payroll in the Capital Region is Colonie, whose 506 employees have an average salary of $50,006.
Supervisor Paula Mahan said in a written statement that the town’s salary structure was put in place before her arrival with the town’s seven bargaining units.
“In addition, many town employees have several years of service with salaries that reflect contractually negotiated step and longevity increases,” she said.
Mahan said her administration has eliminated 66 full-time and 23 part-time positions, largely through attrition and retirements.
She pointed out that Colonie has 82,000 residents and more than 57 square miles. About 250,000 travel through the town each day for work and shopping.
Among cities, Schenectady was the fourth-highest in both municipal at $40,796 and fire and police at $75,353.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said he hadn’t seen the report but pointed out that the city has been reducing its work force. At one point a few years ago, the city had more than 700 workers and now it is below 600.
As these positions have been eliminated, the remaining people have been asked to do more. That has brought up the average salary.
McCarthy said the city has to offer a competitive salary — and even that is not enough.
“There are some positions that we have trouble filling,” he said.
Case in point, the city has had a lot of trouble filling a professional engineer’s position. In 2011, the third engineer left in the last seven years.
This past May, it finally hired a person who started in June after months of searching.
In the Mohawk Valley, Schoharie County ranked first in average salary at $43,267 for 364 employees; Montgomery County third at $38,320 with 393 employees; and Fulton County fifth at $34,832 for 692 employees.
Among cities, Amsterdam was second at an average salary of $41,157 for its 106 readers; followed by Gloversville in sixth at $35,591 for its 97 employees; and Johnstown in seventh at $31,151 for its 49 employees.
Ultimately, Hoefer of the Empire Center said it is up to taxpayers to determine whether this is reasonable compensation.
“What are you getting for your money?” he said.