City of Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis during a City Council meeting in this Nov. 27, 2018, file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre

If there was a pop quiz to find out how many Mainers know what our local elected officials are paid, most people would likely fail.

Here’s a hint: It’s probably not very much.

Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis, whose annual stipend is $2,500, thinks that should change.

“Elected officials should not have to choose between poverty and serving in office,” she wrote last week in an email. “Compensation for the hours that are worked in an elected capacity should reflect the time it takes to get the work done. Fair compensation would allow a much more diverse population of candidates the possibility of running for office.”

The mayor, no stranger to controversy since her 2017 election, took part last month in a “Twitter town hall,” an online-only forum that bore the hashtag #PayPublicServants. She and the three other elected officials from Arizona and Colorado wanted to “bring to light the current state of compensation for elected officials,” Paradis wrote.

In the forum, the Belfast mayor talked about how she needs to work two 12-hour night shifts a week as a registered nurse at the local hospital to make sure she is covered by health insurance and that the mayoral stipend, as small as it is, had more than doubled two years ago — from $1,200 to $2,500 per year.

“Really?” another participant in the Twitter town hall replied. “How can one eat and survive when your job is to oversee an entire city?”

Paradis liked the comment, but there’s a wide gulf between that particular perception and reality.

Belfast, home to about 6,700 people, employs a full-time city manager whose job is to oversee day-to-day municipal business. What’s more, the Belfast City Charter, which specifies that the mayor holds a fairly ceremonial role, does not mention what the mayor’s stipend should be. And for the time being, even Paradis acknowledges the conversation about increasing compensation for public officials is more theoretical than practical.

“I am not advocating for an increase in council member or mayoral salary this year as the city is currently experiencing a budget crunch,” the mayor, who explained that she was too busy for a standard interview, wrote in an email.

A worthwhile conversation

Other Mainers agreed that it’s worth discussing what elected municipal officials are paid. Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services with the Maine Municipal Association said it’s not uncommon for municipalities to look at what they pay their elected officials and consider if it’s time to adjust that. But it’s hard to compare Maine to other states, he said, because we have so many small, rural towns and not a lot of big cities.

Of the state’s 489 municipalities, fewer than half have a town or city manager. Smaller communities generally do not, meaning that elected officials have to do more of the work.

“Not only does the mayor of a big city in Florida get paid, but the council gets paid, and they all have staff,” he said.

While the vast majority of Maine towns and cities pay their elected officials something, most do not pay much, Conrad said. Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling earns an annual salary of $74,747. But he is the exception. It’s more common for communities to compensate local officials in the range of $2,000, $3,000 and $4,000 annually.

“Selectmen run for office because they care. Obviously they’re not doing it because it’s easy. They get a lot of criticism. And it’s certainly not for the money,” he said. “I don’t think that money is the No. 1 motivator, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be looked at from time to time.”

Brewer Mayor Bev Uhlenhake, whose annual stipend is around $1,250, agreed, but more in terms of pay for Maine legislators and the governor, not for local elected officials like herself.

“I see my role in city council as an elevated volunteer position and don’t expect to get paid for it,” she said. “Do I get paid a little bit? Yes, but it’s a nominal amount, and that’s perfectly OK with me.”

What isn’t OK with her is the pay for state legislators and the governor. According to 2018 figures, legislators received a salary of $14,272 for the first regular legislative session and about $10,157 for the second legislative session. The sessions generally run for about six months of the first year and four months of the second year. Lawmakers also receive a host of other benefits.

The governor’s salary is $70,000 a year, which makes it the lowest in the country by $20,000. It has not been raised since 1987.

Past attempts to raise the governor’s salary have failed repeatedly in the Legislature, with the fact that Maine’s governor gets to live in a mansion with hired staff often cited.

“When you look at the qualifications for governor, and what someone in the private sector could be paid, and look at the $70,000, it’s laughable,” Uhlenhake said. “I know people don’t do it just for the money, but we also have to be respectful of the skill set and the knowledge base. When we can’t recruit good people, we have to look at ourselves and ask why.”

She does have an idea that might help, though it may not be popular.

“If we need to reduce the number of people we have in Augusta to make it so the budget works, I think we need to do that,” said Uhlenhake, who ran unsuccessfully for a Maine Senate seat in 2018. “Because [having] better-qualified people is more important than more people, in my view.”

‘We’re the ones viewed as responsible’

Paradis said she estimates spending approximately 10 to 20 hours per week on the city’s business, with more time required in budget season — numbers that make the position of mayor seem more like a part-time job than a volunteer post. People who run for municipal office in Belfast must work out whether they can take time away from work and family with little pay, in order to serve, she wrote.

“This tilts the population of those who serve in these positions to people who may have child care support, who have the good fortune to have financial stability, or those who work flexible schedules,” she said in her email.

Conrad, who does not comment on specific municipal situations, said that generally cities and towns in Maine do find people to fill open seats.

“One thing that’s really cool about Maine is people are still running for office,” he said. “The civic-mindedness and connectedness of the state is really a miracle to see.”

Belfast City Councilor Eric Sanders said that Paradis’ effort to bring attention to the low pay for public officials is a “great conversation starter,” though in his view may not be realistic for Belfast to consider. The stipends for mayor and council were the same for 25 years before councilors gingerly voted to raise them in 2017.

“We’re the ones that send out the property tax bills. We’re the ones that are viewed as responsible,” he said of property taxes. “We’ve been massively driven to keep the budget flat or as low of an increase as possible. It’s still a bare-bones budget in many ways.”

Sanders, who used to serve on the local school board and who is active in community theater, said that he views city council as a civic duty rather than a job.

“I have three kids and I’m able to work and do council,” he said. “I think the mayor has a lot of value, both her ideas and conversation starters. But that’s not what we’re focused on. It’s common-sense stuff: roads, sewers. I actually am glad she brings these things into our sphere of thinking, because otherwise we wouldn’t think about it. But I’m not sure that it is my job to focus on that instead of the city.”