Selectmen’s stipends: A case of penny wise, pound foolish

PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

Should our local elected officials “show some leadership” by giving up their stipends?

I always get concerned when I hear this kind of “sound bite speak” in the political arena, because after years of watching, I just assume something else is going on.

Politicians know that the press loves little quotes like that because, who could be against leadership?

I’m not saying that’s what is going on here, but compensating local officials can be looked at in the short term and in the long term, and it takes leadership to examine the issue properly.

Now, if the selectmen want to give up their compensation for a year to help fund shortfalls in the municipal budget, I’m all for it. That is a decision they have to make after looking at the numbers.

We did it at least one year when I was on the board during much more serious times. We had to close our library, and our seniors were running bake sales to keep the senior center open.

But giving it up permanently and devaluing the town’s highest elected positions because you can’t afford raises for the employees? Are you kidding me?

I have two questions.

Will it make the raises possible, and will it give the taxpayers better government?

The answer to both is clearly no, and a case could be made that the long-term impact on the town would be negative.

Anyone that’s been a selectman or run for it will tell you it’s not the stipend that attracts you to the job.

And this is not some advisory board that meets five or six times a year. This is a board that must spend a fair amount of money out of pocket to do the job.

And in my opinion, the better they are at doing the job, the more expensive it will be for them.

Sure, there will be a fair amount of auto use, plus lots of meetings, lots of research and time away from home. And of course you will be sued.

This work has value, and like it or not, if we as taxpayers/ employers want results from our town government, paying the selectmen or the School Committee a few bucks to justify their time commitment just makes sense.

All of us, if we want to admit it, like to be compensated for our hard work, and although we all from time to time do volunteer work, these jobs have everyday responsibilities.

Now there are some folks that give away their stipends. Dracut School Committeemen Mike Miles and Michael McNamara donate the money to scholarships for students.

Good for them. That is a choice they make that has value to them.

The selectmen and School Committee are the bottom of the food chain when it comes to elective office, and they are also the lowest paid.

Not for nothing, but if we should eliminate selectmen’s compensation because of a cut in local aid, should we cut legislators’ pay?

I’d say no, because their level of compensation has about as much to do with reductions in local aid as paying selectmen $3,000 a year has to do with local budgetary matters.

This issue has been visited by many other local towns, with some interesting arguments made to keep the stipend.

In Arlington last year a similar attempt was made that drew this from self-employed Selectman Kevin Greeley: “I never took the job for the money, but I’m insulted when it’s implied I’m not worth it.”

And from former Billerica selectman and current Town Meeting member Ed Hurd, who pointed out that selectmen incur considerable costs throughout the year, including buying tickets to events, donating to charitable causes in town and travel. “If you make the average citizen pay to sit at the table, the only people who will want to sit at that table are special interests.”

And this from a former Chelmsford official: “The board (selectmen) hasn’t been the same since we cut the compensation.” Think about it.

Warren Shaw is a former Dracut selectman who hosts a popular Saturday morning radio show on WCAP-AM from 6 to 10.