Tax assessor says Warren department heads are 15-25% underpaid

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 3/29/23

Warren’s Tax Assessor, Kristopher Leadem, brought lively discussion to an otherwise humdrum preliminary budget meeting last week at Warren Town Hall by doing something many of us have probably wanted to do at some point — he pointedly asked for a raise in his salary.

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Tax assessor says Warren department heads are 15-25% underpaid


Warren’s Tax Assessor, Kristopher Leadem, brought lively discussion to an otherwise humdrum preliminary budget meeting last week at Warren Town Hall by doing something many of us have probably wanted to do at some point — he pointedly asked for a raise in his salary.

While all department heads in Warren were in line for 3 percent raises, as recommended by Town Manager Kate Michaud, when it came time to deliberate the Assessor’s budget, a noticeable jump in the assessor’s request for his salary was seen — from $64,187 last year, to a request of $73,800, representing a 15% increase over the prior year. That request was nixed down to a 3% increase by Michaud in her recommended budget, which would amount to $66,112.

Leadem went to the podium to methodically plead his case, which he did in an even-mannered, respectful way. He pointed out that he had done research into surrounding areas, and quantified how his position is normally compensated, ultimately making a request that he argued would put his salary more in line with neighboring communities.

“I wouldn’t be arguing if I felt that I was in line with the rest of the town,” he said. “But I think I’m 25% under, where most people are 15% under. I think it’s something that you should look at to get the other town employees up to a competitive range. It’s not going to happen all at once.”

Leadem’s research analyzed six towns with a similar population size to Warren (which has an estimated population of 10,600). Those towns included Bristol (22,131), Barrington (16,000), North Smithfield (12,500), Scituate (10,404), Richmond (8,165), and West Greenwich (6,400).

The salary for tax assessors in those communities, he found, ranged between $77,000 and $94,000. His salary of $64,000, he reasoned, was over $10,000 lower than even the bottom of that range.

Leadem said that in those other towns, the Building Official served as a useful comparison for the assessor position, where those two salaries are generally in line with one another. In Warren, however, the assessor is paid 15% less than the building official. He clarified that he was not picking on Building Official Matt Cabral, and was merely using that position as a point of reference.

“if you look at other towns you’ll see a similar relationship between Town Planners and Town Managers,” Leadem said. That relationship, too, in Warren, has a distinct disparity. The Town Manager salary is set to go up to six figures in Warren, to $102,512 if approved during tonight’s budget meeting, while the Town Planner position (which is currently vacant following the recent departure of Bob Rulli) is slated to increase to $74,686.

Leadem hypothesized that one reason for the assessor’s low pay in Warren relates to how the position had been filled in the past.

“Traditionally it was a position that was filled from within. You took clerks who spent time, good people who worked well, but they didn’t have the experience,” he said, adding that he came to Warren about seven years ago as a certified appraiser with 11 years of relative experience. “If I was to leave — I’m not looking to leave — to fill the position with the current salary now, you’re going to get just that. You’re going to get someone from within the town to fill those shoes. You’re not going to get somebody that is a certified assessor, has appraisal experience and has worked as a town assessor. There’s just no way.”

Leadem argued that his position, factoring in Warren’s population, should be compensated at a market rate of around $84,000. “I’m not looking for $84,000 because I think everyone in town is paid 15% under what they should,” he said. “I’m looking for 15% under that to be fair.”

A town cap called into question
Part of the intrigue surrounding Leadem’s request, and part of what makes his request challenging, is an ordinance that was enacted by the Town Council to apply to employees hired after 2006 that requires all pay increases be applied evenly across department heads.

So, for example, if Leadem was to be awarded a 15% raise, all department heads would need to receive a 15% raise.

Leadem said that such a proposition was obviously unfeasible, considering the town cannot raise the overall tax levy garnered from residents by more than 4% per state law. “If property values go up, we don’t get more money,” he said. “We lower the tax rate and get the same money and we’re fighting every year to fall right into that 4%.”

But this is an issue that Leadem reasoned would continue to hurt the town in the long run.

“If we continue to treat town employees’ positions as, ‘If one person gets a raise, they all need to get a raise,’ then no one is going to get a raise,” Leadem said.

Reached Tuesday morning, Town Manager Kate Michaud had sympathy for Leadem’s position.

“I would love nothing better than to have Warren employees be the best paid employees in the state, but unfortunately we have budget constraints,” she said. “I can’t argue against his request because he does deserve more, and so do all the department heads. But there’s the cap we have to work under and there’s other items affected by inflation that we don’t have any control over, so it’s a challenge for sure.”

Michaud said that keeping pay raises uniform among department heads is a relatively common practice in municipal government, and that the Town Council wisely re-established longevity bonuses last year for non-union town employees (which includes all department heads), where bonus stipends are paid for employees who stay for five, ten, fifteen, and twenty consecutive years. She also said that Leadem was slated to receive a stipend of $3,000 for his role on an administrative board which he had not been compensated for.

Still, Michaud admitted that the low pay in Warren — relative to surrounding communities and especially relative to jobs available over the border in Massachusetts (where former Town Planner Bob Rulli left for a job in Bridgewater) — left her concerned regarding the retention of skilled employees.

“It’s always a concern,” she said. “We don’t just have to look a surrounding Rhode Island communities. If you look over the border at Massachusetts…The pay is a lot more than we could ever pay here.”

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