B y Derek Liebig
When it comes to supervisors’ salaries, no two are the same.
While salaries of the 17 county supervisors are equal at the county level—with exception of the chair, vice chair and budget officer, who make more than their peers—wages at the town level vary significantly from one community to the next.
Granville Supervisor Matt Hicks is paid approximately $7,500 a year, nearly twice what Hartford’s Dana Haff makes and more than three times the amount Hampton Supervisor Dave O’Brien is paid. But less than half of what Dresden Supervisor George Gang makes and a third of what Fort Ann and Kingsbury (nearly $23,000) pay their supervisors.
“There does seem to be a huge disparity,” Whitehall Supervisor George Armstrong, who makes $5,127, said.
Inventing the wheel
The salary of nearly every municipal employee, including supervisors, councilmen and other elected positions, is determined by the town board. And while many officials try to make employees’ salaries competitive from one municipality to the next, the onus of determining what is appropriate pay for an elected official falls entirely on the town board.
The state and the Association of Towns, an advocacy group that provides training and technical assistance to 97 percent of New York’s towns, do not have a set of guidelines that aid elected officials in setting their own wages.
“There’s really no rhyme or reason,” Haff, who makes a little less than $4,000, said. “Every town invents the wheel and has its own standards.”
He suspects in many instances that supervisors’ salaries are affected by what their pay has been in the past. He said Hartford’s pay has probably always been low, and because the town increases pay in small increments, that’s why it remains low today.
“Politically speaking, no one wants to say ‘I want a 10 percent’ increase,’” Haff said. “The taxpayers aren’t going to stand for that.”
Hicks said his salary and that of other board members has not changed since he entered office. He said the town has mandated expenses that keep their hands tied.
“We’ve tried to keep the budget flat and there are certain expenses you have to pay so we’ve tried to keep some of those other things frozen,” he said.
In many instances, salaries are determined by what a respective municipality wants to pay and what it is able to pay.
“A lot of salary is based on taxes and how much comes in. It varies town to town. It really comes down to what the town is willing to pay and what they can afford,” O’Brien said.
Hampton pays its supervisor a little more than $2,000, plus mileage, but O’Brien claims only the mileage and waives the salary.
With approximately 950 residents, the community has one of the smallest tax bases in the county. It also has little to no industry to speak of. That means the tax burden is placed entirely on the community’s residents and officials have balked at the prospect of increasing their salaries at the expense of residents whose finances are already stretched thin.
“Would people like more salary? Sure. But some are more fortunate than others. We have some people living in this the community that are struggling to make ends meet and we don’t feel we should increase that burden,” O’Brien said.
Other communities, such as Dresden and Putnam are of similar size, but are bordered by Lake George and Lake Champlain and have a number of lakeside properties that increase the tax base exponentially. They therefore have a greater ability to keep taxes low while paying officials more.
More than just a supervisor?
Another factor in what supervisor makes is his/her duties.
“You have to determine how many hats they’re wearing,” Haff said.
Dresden Supervisor George Gang, who took office earlier this month, earns an annual salary of $14,500 for his duties as supervisor. He also makes an additional $12,400 for serving as the town’s budget officer, bringing his total salary to $26,900.
Compare that to Whitehall, which pays its supervisor a salary of $5,100 and its budget officer a salary of $22,000, plus an annual contribution of $4,400 to his pension, and the community is actually paying more for the two positions.
There’s also the question of whether towns pay health insurance. Hartford provides health insurance to only its fulltime employees and not members of the town board (who are considered parttime), but some towns provide health insurance to its elected officials. Jackson, for instance, provides full coverage to members of its town board.
Better paid in Warren County
If there is a single common thread in local supervisors’ salaries, it’s that they make much less than their Warren County peers.
Although the counties are of nearly identical size in terms of population, Warren County towns pay their supervisors more.
The average supervisor in Warren County is paid approximately $24,000 at the town level, while the average supervisor in Washington County makes approximately $9,000.
Armstrong said the reason for the disparity has to do with the fact that Warren County generates more than twice the sales tax revenue as Washington County.
The pay gap represents a different approach to politics. Whereas Warren County treats the position of supervisor as a fulltime job and officials, such as State Senator Elizabeth Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec have parlayed local positiosn into state positions, most Washington County supervisors augment their pay at the town and county with part time jobs or pensions from other jobs. Haff said if he didn’t have a second source of income, he would not be able to hold the position of supervisor at his current salary.
“No one is going to do it just for the money,” Haff sad. “Only persons dedicated to the community would bother to do the job for such low pay.”
While Armstrong feels many supervisors are underpaid, he said they also know their salaries before they enter office. But he does wonder if there wouldn’t be benefits to the community if the supervisor’s salary was more.
Of the 17 supervisors who terms were set to expire in December, only six were challenged in last fall’s general election.
“The question is, if the position paid more would it attract better candidates.”