Note: bold by the Lexington Electric Utility Committee.
Power pay: Light plant workers rake in the dough; Utility workers make far more than other officials, but no one seems to mind
By KAREN ESCHBACHER
The Patriot Ledger
Competition for skilled workers and a development-fueled boom in electricity consumption are helping to make employees at town-owned light plants some of the top municipal earners on the South Shore.
More than a quarter of employees at the Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant pulled in at least $100,000 last year, records show.
At the Braintree Electric Light Department, 20 percent of workers made six figures. General Manager William Bottiggi took home $135,492 - more than the town’s police and fire chiefs and enough to make him the third highest-paid employee in town.
Managers at the two plants say the big paychecks - which are often beefed up by overtime - are justified because town-owned utilities must offer salaries competitive with those in the private sector.
‘‘The positions that we’re talking about - the linemen, the engineering types, the technical positions - are tough to come by and they’re getting tougher, so you have to pay competitive salaries,’’ said John Tzimorangas, the general manager in Hingham who pocketed $123,173 last year. ‘‘The places we’re competing against are other municipal light plants or the private electric companies.’’
Hull also has town-run electric service, but it contracts out field work. As a result, the department only has a handful of employees. Only one - recently retired manager John MacLeod - made more than $100,000 last year.
While residents typically get worked up about high salaries paid to school superintendents, town administrators and other municipal employees, the paychecks going to light department staff in Braintree and Hingham hardly result in any rumblings.
That’s because the departments still manage to keep rates low.
Consider: A household that uses 500 kilowatt hours of electricity is charged about $65 a month in Braintree and $69 in Hingham. Compare that to $76 and $96 for National Grid and NStar customers, respectively.
‘‘They’re able to keep the rates low and still pay the people what the industry pays, and that’s really what you have to base it on,’’ said Braintree resident Fred Foley, a former finance committee chairman who says he doesn’t have any gripes with pay at the town’s light department.
And unlike other town departments, such as schools, police or fire, the light departments’ payrolls aren’t paid for out of the general budget, but are instead covered by the plants’ revenues. That means a road doesn’t go unpaved or the school budget doesn’t get chopped if light department employees make more money.
‘‘They are a separate entity,’’ said Edward Langill, chairman of the Braintree finance committee. ‘‘They are a business that provides a service to the town. As long as the rates remain lower than the average in surrounding communities, I’m not sure it’s going to be that big of a concern townwide.’’
While competition for skilled labor is a big reason local light plant employees are able to command good money, it’s not the only factor.
In Hingham, for example, a spurt of recent development, such as construction of age-restricted housing at Linden Pond, has kept linemen and other workers busy trying to deliver electricity to places that simply didn’t exist before, Tzimorangas said.
In fact, energy consumption has jumped 30 percent in the town in the last year, he said.
The result has been a spike in overtime.
That means a lineman, whose base salary is about $70,000, can take home much more by tacking on extra hours.
Officials at Braintree Electric also say overtime accounts for much of that department’s hefty pay.
There, base salaries are between $65,000 and $80,000, Bottiggi said.
‘‘We are a 7-day-a-week, 24-hours-a day operation,’’ he said. ‘‘We respond to outages and emergencies. When we have events we have to respond. It’s very frequent that these people get called in when they’re normally off. That drives quite a bit of their pay.
‘‘For the most part the residents understand,’’ he added. ‘‘The residents are happy with Braintree Electric because we keep the cost of their service down and we’re a highly reliable service. If someone makes a lot of money sometimes someone will raise an eyebrow, but we can explain why that is.’’