It’s time to let City Council members of the Programs & Services Committee know your opinion on whether or not our elected officials (the Mayor, City Council and School Committee members) should receive raises.  The period for public comments is expected to close at the P & S meeting on Wednesday, September 4th.  It is unclear how much any proposed raises would be, since the committee did not seem to favor the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries.  The City Council plans to vote by the end of September so any raised would go into effect in 2020.

Andrea Steenstrup, a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Salaries, recently send the letter below to the Mayor and the City Council:  

To the members of the Newton City Council and Mayor Fuller:

I served on the Blue Ribbon Commission studying the potential for a salary increase for elected officials in our city. These comments are my own and are not meant to represent the opinions of the commission. While I mostly discuss the City Council, the same sentiment applies to School Committee Members. I highly respect the members of our City Council and School Committee, and in no way mean to discredit their hard work and service to our community. I am looking at this solely from what the Blue Ribbon Commission concluded and from what I think is best financially for the city.

While we briefly discussed the fiscal implications of our recommendations and were cognizant of cost factors, the Commission agreed and understood it was not within our scope to weigh the full budget impact of any given stipend increase.  We concluded that the City Council would bear full responsibility for vetting the fiscal implications of our proposal.

With that in mind, our original recommendation was to change the offerings for elected officials to one of only a cash stipend and not to offer health or other benefits. There were several reasons we came to this conclusion, not the least of which was the difference in remuneration between those who took family insurance coverage and those who took none – currently for City Council, this difference is $9,750  vs $31,000 annually. We were also advised by former elected officials, that while people may not choose to run for elected office specifically seeking the health and pension benefits, a number of incumbents would seek to stay in office because of these benefits. Our intent was to incent people to run, not incent the incumbents to stay.

We also talked about the OPEB obligations of the city and how not offering health insurance to elected officials would, in some small way, help to not increase the future obligations of the city.

Our original number of $18,000 for the stipend for City Councilors was ONLY with the assumption that health insurance would no longer be offered. This was a cost neutral approach, taking the money currently paid for stipend and benefits and spreading it equally as stipend among the 24 Councilors. Again – to be crystal clear, this number was assuming no health insurance coverage.  At no time did we entertain the idea of raising the stipend to $18,000 while still offering health insurance. For the City Council to even consider this as an option is going against the spirit and intent of the recommendations of the committee. When we looked at other cities, we deliberately choose not to recommend a stipend near the average because Newton has more than twice the amount of city councilors as every one of those comparable cities. We felt we could not ignore the difference in aggregate compensation

Unfortunately, very near to the end of our deliberation, we found out that not offering health insurance was viewed by the city to not be a feasible option. We had to quickly shift gears and come up with plan b. Working with our intentions of decreasing the gap between those who take insurance and those who do not, and also hoping for the added benefit of decreasing the number of elected officials taking costly health insurance and potentially being eligible for lifetime benefits, we came up with the idea of the $5,000 incentive to not take health insurance. Some of us voted to make the $5,000 incentive the only form of raise given. When considering the disproportionate value of the health insurance, for someone who took family health insurance since 1998, while the dollar value of their stipend has not increased, the value of their health insurance has increased nearly 400% ($5,394 annual premium for Tufts family in 1998 to $20,089 for Tufts family today), and the value of their total compensation has increased 200%. ($15,144 to $29,839). The total compensation, with family health insurance has gone up 28% more than the CPI since 1998. Even more disturbing is the fact that in 1998, a Councilor taking family health insurance received 1.5 times the compensation of a councilor that didn’t ($15,144 vs $9750), today that councilor is making 3 times as much, $29,839 vs $9,750).

I hope you do the right thing and consider the intent of the Blue Ribbon Commission and the financial state of the city while deliberating on any increase. While the aggregate dollar value of the raise may be small in comparison to the entire city budget, it still represents something else in the budget that will be cut, whether it be one teacher, or a major playground improvement,  some road or other infrastructure improvement, or, as in the past, closure of a branch  library.

At this point, if the City Council decides to raise the compensation of the City Council, the $14,000 stipend recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission is the absolute highest annual compensation that should be considered, while health benefits are still being offered.

Furthermore, I hope future commissions, or even the current city council,  further pursue the notion of not providing direct health benefits and providing only a cash stipend, with which the elected officials could do what they please, whether that be pay for health insurance via the health connector, pay for child care, pay their cell phone bills, get coffee – their choice. The price and the ability to obtain health insurance has changed dramatically since the time our elected officials were originally granted these benefits. Other cities, including the City of Everett (copy of Everett’s Charter attached – see section 2-4 a) in Massachusetts do not offer health benefits to their City Council and School Committee. In line with the original planned recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission, I truly believe this is the best option for Newton.