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Sun., Aug. 30
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Study looks at municipal employees


CANTON - Want the best-paying government job in the north country?

Your best bets are Lewis County, the town of Massena, the villages of Lake Placid or Potsdam, or Watertown’s police and fire departments.

That’s according to a study by the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. The organization published a report last week that detailed how much the average north country municipal employee made in every town, village, county and city in the state.

The issue of employee pay has been at the forefront of discussions about fiscal austerity in tough economic times. From St. Lawrence County’s payroll to Watertown’s fire department, public officials are talking about ways to save money, while strong labor laws prevent a strong governmental bargaining chip in negotiations with unions.

The report comes at a time of fiscal crisis for St. Lawrence County. Of the six north country counties that the Empire Center tabulated, it was No. 2 in terms of average salary, at $43,113. It had 920 employees on its payroll. No. 1 was Lewis County, at an average salary of $44,579, which has a hospital on its payroll. It had 825 employees on its payroll.

“We need to take a look at things,” said St. Lawrence County Legislature Chairwoman Sallie A. Brothers, D-Norfolk. “It’s dreadfully important. One of the things I’ve been concerned with is the escalation of salaries out of proportion to other counties.”

She said she was glad to see the report to be able to make comparisons, especially since the county is looking at a nearly 20 percent tax levy increase.

Mrs. Brothers said the size of the county contributes somewhat to higher salaries compared with Franklin County, which is ranked sixth in the north country with 551 employees with an average salary of $36,073.

“We’re not Franklin County. We’ve got twice as many people to serve. I’ll accept that as one mitigating factor,” she said. “Certainly we have more people to manage.”

But Mrs. Brothers said the county has to face the fact that it is poor.

“When we’re the poorest county, we can’t be the highest paid county,” she said.

In September, St. Lawrence County had the highest unemployment rate in the north country region, at 9.5 percent.

Jefferson County ranked No. 3 in the region, the middle of the pack for average pay. Jefferson County Legislator Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, chairman of the Finance and Rules Committee, said that the reason Jefferson County is financially healthy is related to its fiscal conservatism, illustrated by being in the middle of the pack for the north country region.

“There’s a correlation between the budget issues (other counties are) experiencing and where we’re positioned in that report,” he said.

The report shows Lewis County as offering the highest average salary in the north country, and three employees were in the top 20 in the state for salary. However, Lewis County’s figure is skewed by the inclusion of workers at the municipally owned Lewis County General Hospital, particularly several hospital-employed doctors.

“The Empire Center’s report is accurate, based on the fact that employees employed by Lewis County government and Lewis County General Hospital are all county employees and are reported as such,” said County Manager David H. Pendergast.

A listing of the 20 highest municipal salaries in the state includes three Lewis County “employees,” all of them doctors.

Lewis County’s payroll was similar to Massena’s. The town has a hospital on its payroll. It had far and away the most employees of any town in the state, at 429. The next highest was Plattsburgh, at 70. It also had the highest average salary, at $50,746.

Charles F. Fahd II, the Massena Memorial Hospital CEO, was the highest-paid general employee in the state, at $250,430 annually. Fourteen police and fire officials from around the state made more money than Mr. Fahd.

“We have some very expensive professionals,” town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray said. “It kind of skews things.”

Mr. Gray said he has found the salaries of various other town employees higher than the north country average but attributed that to years of competing for workers with Massena’s industrial plants.

The city of Watertown had more police and fire employees than Plattsburgh or Ogdensburg, the other two cities in the region. Police and fire officials made an average of $64,142, compared with $55,495 in Ogdensburg. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Watertown’s population is 27,423, Plattsburgh’s population is 19,949 and Ogdensburg’s population is 11,104.

Unlike in other cities, there are more firefighters than police officers in Watertown, according to Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith.

But talk of cutting the fire department can be tricky politics. Mr. Smith questioned why fire officials advocated for such a high level of coverage when many of them don’t live in the city. Small towns and villages outside of the city of Watertown don’t have professional fire protection. Instead, they rely on volunteer fire protection.

“The fire department will tell us how you need to have all these numbers and all these people and they’re the professionals, yet half of them don’t live in the city,” Mr. Smith said. “What does that tell you? You’re the professional and you feel you can live under volunteer firefighters — it’s kind of a contradiction. “

Mr. Smith didn’t say explicity that he wanted to cut the fire department, but said that parts of the fire department’s contract that require minimum staffing in certain areas of the city “are always things you can look at. They’re tough political fights, especially the fire department.”

Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said of fire department cuts: “That’s not something I’m personally pursuing. That’s not to say others aren’t. ... That’s such a broad issue. It doesn’t lend itself to a couple of column inches.”

The village of Potsdam, at 49 employees with an average salary of $45,389, ranked only behind Lake Placid for villages in the north country.

“My reaction is it’s interesting, but you have to take it with a big grain of salt,” Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis said.

The comparisons are not exact because some villages employ more part-time workers than others, which would bring down the average salary, and some also include trustees as employees, which would also reduce the average salary, he said.

Larger villages are more likely to have administrators and other professionals with higher salaries than those that are run by a few part-time employees, he said.

The full report can be viewed here:

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