Oakland’s town manager has suggested more than $55,000 in salary and benefit increases for a group of eight town employees, saying they don’t get paid enough as those performing similar work in other communities.

One of the employees, Librarian Sarah Roy, would get a $12,792 raise, which is a 38.66 percent increase on her yearly salary.

If that sounds like a lot, Town Manager Peter Nielsen said, it’s because Roy and a handful of other employees are dramatically underpaid and have been for years.

Under the proposal, the heads of the police, fire and public works departments, as well as the heads of the transfer station and the town library, would all get significant salary bumps, mostly between $3,000 and $6,000 per year.

The proposal will be discussed as part of broader municipal budget package at a joint meeting of the Town Council and the town’s budget committee next Monday. Some version of the entire budget is scheduled to be voted on by the council on Wednesday, March 5. A budget will go before voters at the annual Town Meeting on May 6.

Even if the proposals are approved, those workers would still make less than the state average for those positions at comparable towns, Nielsen said.

‘Taxpayers’ pockets’

One person who has not warmed to the idea is Town Council Chairman Mike Perkins.

“I’m not running hot on it,” Perkins said. “I realize there’s a state average and that they’re way below it. But at the same time, there’s affordability. We also have to be very aware that our taxpayers are paying for this.”

Arguments about rate of pay of town employees are a routine part of municipal politics. On one side of the debate are the employees themselves, who often feel they are going above and beyond the job requirements, only to be taken advantage of when it comes to wages and benefits. On the other side are taxpayers who see every employee increase in terms of how much money it takes out of their pockets.

The impact of the $55,000 in employee raises would be about 9.3 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value, or a little more than $9 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

“A low wage is great if you’re the person paying it,” Nielsen said. “If you’re receiving it, it’s not.”

Still, he said, now is the right time to broach the topic. “I’m trying to stick my neck out here,” he said. “I’m doing it because I believe it’s the right thing to do.”

In this case, the argument in favor of a wage hike is based on a set of salary comparison figures released by the Maine Municipal Association. The numbers show that, when compared to their peers at a set of 35 towns with comparable populations, many of Oakland’s employees are underpaid.

Nielsen said a couple employees approached him seeking increases. He asked them to instead wait while he came up with a more comprehensive wage adjustment plan.

Group of eight

The group of eight employees were chosen because they are department leaders who are the worst off compared to statewide averages.

“Some were much more out of whack than others,” Nielsen said.

If the wage hikes are approved, those employees would receive salary increases bringing them up to 92 percent of the state average.

Currently, they make far less.

For example, Roy makes $18.93 an hour working at the town library. The average state pay for head librarians at comparably sized towns is $30.86. Nielsen’s proposal would increase Roy’s pay to $28.39, or 92 percent of the state average.

Assistant Librarian Lisa Stevens makes $11.05, compared to a statewide average of $17.39. Nielsen’s proposal would include an increase to $16, also 92 percent of the state average.

The other employees covered in the proposal are:

• Public Works Director Jeffrey Hall’s pay would go from $25.11 an hour to $29.36, compared to a state average of $31.91.

• Highway Foreman Roland Cote’s pay would go from $18.25 to $20.77, compared to an average of $22.58.

• Transfer station Manager Johnny Thomas’ pay would go from $15.55 to $17.43, compared to $18.95.

• Fire Chief Dave Coughlin’s pay would go from $25.87 to $28.21, compared to $30.66.

• Police Chief Mike Tracy’s pay would go from $29.85 to $31.32, compared to $34.04.

• Police Capt. Rick Stubbert’s pay would go from $24.77 to $26.74, compared to $29.06.

The rest

Not everyone who makes less than the state average is covered under the proposal.

For example, police dispatchers make $15.64 an hour as compared to a statewide average of $17.61, while truck drivers in the public works department make $14.22 as compared to a statewide average of $16.17.

Nielsen said he would like to address these inequalities later if the economy continues to improve and voters are willing.

“I’m thinking to myself, if a truck driver leaves the public works department, that’s bad,” he said. “But if the director leaves, that would be much worse. I have had to choose some but not others.”

A few of Oakland’s employees are paid slightly above the state average.

The town assessor makes $32.91 compared to an average of $32.54. The code enforcement officer makes $26.07, more than the state average of $25.33.

The only town employee who makes significantly more than the state average is Recreation Director Eric Seekins, who makes $24.36, or $3.44 more than the state average of $20.92.

Nielsen himself makes $36.64, which is 92 percent of the state average of $39.82.

That comparison is what led Nielsen to push for a figure of 92 percent.

He said he determined no one should be working for the town whose pay is farther below average than his.

The proposal is being considered in the context of a town economy that seems to be coming back to life after years of recession.

Nielsen said some positive developments have already resulted in more money for the town.

“There are some favorable signs that I think allow us to make this initiative and I have some hope that people will see its value,” Nielsen said.

Excise tax revenues have gone up dramatically over the past year, while a new natural gas pipeline running through the town is expected to produce thousands in added revenue.

The town also benefited from a recent vote in the state legislature that maintained levels of state revenue sharing funding, eliciting a sigh of relief from municipal officials across the state who had been bracing for continued reductions to that program.

Perkins said the town’s economy is still too fragile to accommodate such large raises.

“I don’t think times are as plush as people are saying,” he said. “I don’t want to break the coffers just to help a few people out.”

Even if the idea does have merit, he said, town residents may not be in a position to fund it.

“I think times are tough for everybody,” Perkins said.

The total amount of the salary increases for a year would be $48,764, which would cost the town $55,664 once increases to fringe benefits are taken into account.

The budget also includes a 2 percent cost of living adjustment for all town employees.

The total town budget proposed by Nielsen for next year is $4.49 million, an increase of 5.83 percent over the current budget of $4.24 million. Some of that increase will be picked up by the added anticipated revenues, but some will result in a property tax hike.

In all, the budget would cause a property tax rate increase of 42 cents per $1,000 in taxable property, which means that a taxpayer who owns a $100,000 property would pay about $42 more. The current tax rate is $13.80 per $1,000.

Nielsen said the town has not taken a comprehensive look at basic wage fairness in the five years he’s served as manager and that more needs to be done to recruit and retain good employees.

“I think sometimes these comparisons are not made,” Nielsen said. “History rolls along. You get further away from a market figure each time you fail to address these issues.”

Tracy, who has been with the police department for 33 years, said sees the wage disparity as a fairness issue, but that he hasn’t been carrying around resentment as a result of his salary.

“It’s a small town with a small number of employees. We all get along together very well. It’s almost a family atmosphere,” he said. “That certainly factors in.”

Nielsen said an employee shouldn’t have to threaten to leave to be rewarded adequately for their service.

“Oakland has some people who have been working here a long time,” Nielsen said. “That says a good thing about Oakland. It says a good thing about our employees. But if the long term plan is to pay them below average, what does that say?”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt