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W-B’s Leighton tops area mayors’ pay scale

Salaries of area mayors vary with city size, responsibilities and city budget health.

Want to earn $79,000?

You could become a “Program Management Advisor.” But you’d have to move to Iraq and, according to the U.S. Department of State, possess the “ability to work under stress in a potentially dangerous environment.”

Like to cook? There’s the job of Canadian prime minister’s chef, whose motto is: “Politics divides men, but a good meal unites them.”

Better yet, you could try to steal Joe Paterno’s job while he’s hurt. USA Today reported this week that the average NCAA Division I-A college football coach earns $950,000 a year or $79,000 per game.

Or you could get elected Wilkes-Barre’s mayor.

Thomas M. Leighton, earns $79,911 a year, the highest mayoral pay rate in the region, a Times Leader review shows. No other mayor gets paid within $20,000 of that amount.

Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta earns $57,881 while Scranton Mayor Christopher Doherty makes $50,000, even though Scranton’s population of 76,415 (2000 Census) far exceeds Wilkes-Barre’s 43,000.

The review also shows a wide disparity of pay ranges for other mayors across Luzerne County, with many working part-time and some performing only ceremonial duties.

“You don’t take this job for money,” Doherty said. “It’s about doing public service. You do it because you love what you’re doing. And you know what you’re getting into, so I don’t have any problem with the salary.”

“I believe my salary is fair,” Leighton said. “If you divided the salary I earn by the hours I work, I’d probably be making minimum wage. But I did not take this job because of the salary. I took this job because I thought I had the opportunity to help the city, and I believe that it has been helped. I believe we have the city on the right path, and I’m hoping that by this time next year we’ll have a truly vibrant town for the holidays.”

Compared salaries

Doherty will soon earn less.

Starting Jan. 1, he’ll take a pay cut to $45,000, and it is at his own request. With the city facing a deficit between $6 million and $8 million, he has proposed a $77.4 million budget in which his salary is cut 10 percent, five city administrators will be fired and a dozen are asked to take a 5 percent pay cut.

Why?

“As the leader of the city, if I am going to reduce the number of people on the payroll, if I’m going to ask people to take salary cuts, I should be willing to take the lead and cut my own salary as well,” he said. “That’s part of leadership.”

Doherty, 47, said the proposed pay cut, so far, has drawn little reaction. “Who’s asked besides you? That’s it, but thanks for caring,” he said with a laugh.

He added that he believed Scranton’s mayoral salary was the lowest among similar-sized cities in eastern Pennsylvania, “lower than Wilkes-Barre, lower than Allentown and even lower than Hazleton, I think.”

And what about Leighton’s salary? “That’s a private matter. I don’t want to get into that. Just say that he’s worth every dime they pay him.”

Thomas Baldino, professor of political science at Wilkes University, said he doesn’t have a clear understanding of “why there’s such a great disparity between the salaries” but thinks it may stem from Scranton’s financial problems of a decade or so ago.

What Baldino does have is a firm conviction that you get what you pay for.

“My colleagues in economics tell me that salaries are set by the marketplace. So work valued highly will be compensated higher than work that isn’t valued so highly.”

By those standards, is Leighton’s pay high?

“No, the Wilkes-Barre mayor’s salary is not out of line with what the CEO of a major or even medium-sized company would make,” Baldino said. “And if you compare Leighton’s salaries with comparable area salaries, you’ll see it’s not that high at all.

“The presidents of both King’s College and the University of Scranton are paid more than Leighton, and the president of Wilkes University makes more than $125,000, I believe.” (Wilkes President Tim Gilmour actually makes $205,700, the university said.)

“Wilkes University has a budget of $40 million and I imagine the city of Wilkes-Barre’s budget is close to that. Wilkes University is a nonprofit and the city of Wilkes-Barre is a nonprofit. So by those standards, Leighton isn’t overpaid at all.”

As for Leighton saying that he will freeze his salary at its current level for next year, “in light of the city’s finances, that’s probably a very good move,” said Baldino, who serves on the Luzerne County Government Study Commission.

Brigid Harrison, professor of political science at Montclair State University in New Jersey, says salary is a matter of perspective. “Some mayors are very hands-on and dedicate every waking hour to their job. If this is the case in Wilkes-Barre, then a near-$80,000 salary may be appropriate. On the other hand, other mayors tend to hold more ceremonial roles. … Often, the public is a very good judge of whether an elected official is worth their salary.

“They are the ones who will balk if a particular elected official’s salary seems excessive for the job being done.”

Leighton says that he can’t estimate how many hours he works but it’s “seven days a week, whether at church, the grocery store or at Boscov’s. You are never off-duty and people are always asking you questions and for advice and you always do your best to answer them.”

Leighton agreed with Baldino’s assessment that he might be underpaid. “I’m faced with a $37 million budget, more than 300 workers and I oversee a balance sheet of $167 million. Don’t you think that a CEO running a company with financials of $167 million would be receiving a far higher salary than I do?”

He said he thinks other mayors are “grossly underpaid, considering all the aggravation that comes with the job. If they were working in the private sector they could be earning far higher salaries – and without the public scrutiny.”

Leighton said he will decide whether to seek another term over the holidays. “I’ve had long conversations with my family and accountant (about making the move) and we decided you can always adjust and just live within your means and that is what we are doing.”

Penchant for the job

Luzerne County’s second-highest-paid mayor is Barletta, mayor of the county’s second-largest city, Hazleton, with a population of 23,329.

Barletta earns $57,881 a year.

Like Leighton, Barletta, 50, stresses that his salary is fair because his job is “constant.” “There are really no set hours, but it’s not a 9-to-5 job. I work days, nights and weekends and it really never ends. I’m always a single incident away from a phone call that brings me back to work no matter when. So I’m really never not working.”

And as with Leighton, he says he didn’t take the mayor’s job because of the salary. “I am committed to what I am doing. And I enjoy what I am doing. I always tell my daughters, ‘If you like what you are doing, you never have to work a day in your life,’ and that’s the way I feel about the mayor’s job.”

Luzerne County’s two other cities – Nanticoke and Pittston – rely on part-time mayors. In Pittston, Mayor Joseph Keating earns $3,000 a year in the city of 9,400. Unlike most other part-time mayors, he is a voting member of the city’s council.

In Nanticoke, John Bushko earns $2,500 annually and is in charge of the police department in the city of 10,955 residents.

Political scientist Harrison says that, “in general, when municipalities have part-time mayors and councils, their salaries and other compensation tends not to reflect the amount of time and energy they put into their positions.

“In cities where the mayor is a full-time position, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. At times, we now see full-time elected leaders asking that their salaries reflect their value in the private sector.”

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