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Lake County's top municipal executives catch a lot of grief — for everything from garbage collections to potholes — but they are well compensated for their troubles.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said in the 12 years he has been in office, he rarely hears a complaint about his salary from adults. "But I do hundreds of public appearances, and the only time I ever get asked about money is when I speak to kids.

"A second-grader will ask me how much I make and I say I make $105,000 a year and everyone goes 'WHOAAA.' It's not a bad question. I'm a public figure, and I'm not afraid of it either," he said.

A Times Media Co. survey of local and state records of mayors around the state indicates seven of this county's mayors and town managers are among the top-income earners.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is at the top of the pay scale at $142,096.

The city's contributions to her medical and life insurance and pension, and Medicare and Social Security benefits add thousands more to her total compensation.

Just below her, former Munster Town Manager Tom DeGuilio was on track to receive an annual salary of $135,966, but collected only $126,000 of it because the town council declined to renew his contract last summer.

East Chicago's Mayor Anthony Copeland was paid $129,408, and Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. $104,807 the same year. They, too, receive thousands more in benefits.

Mayors, the elected chief executive officers of Indiana's cities, also lead Crown Point, Hobart, Lake Station and Whiting. Indiana has 55 town managers hired by their community's elected officials to manage the daily affairs of the municipalities, including Cedar Lake, Dyer, Munster, St. John and Schererville.

"The job is as rewarding as it is challenging," Freeman-Wilson acknowledged.

She explains her income, which was set at this level before she took office, is a combination of a traditional mayor's salary of $102,580 and an additional $39,516 for serving as special administrator for Gary's sanitary district, which has been under federal scrutiny for polluting Lake Michigan.

Freeman-Wilson said her sanitary district responsibilities entail more than attending routine meetings.

"Over the last three years, we have probably made more progress than any other time in the last 20 in terms of remediation and developing a plan to get out of the (federal) consent decree. I attend sanitary district meetings regularly, but I also meet with (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) and (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)," she said.

Gary councilman-at-large Kyle Allen noted, "She runs the civil city, the Gary Housing Authority, the sanitary district, the Gary Public Transportation Corp. and an airport on top of managing boards and commissions. She is obviously full time."

He said Freeman-Wilson, like other big-city mayors, have responsibilities to match their large salaries. "You have all these employees you are responsible for," he said. Gary lists 1,314 employees and Hammond 1,345 on their 2014 payrolls.

Lake's mayors and town managers make an average salary of just more than $91,500 — three times the average per capita income of the 12 communities.

That is also higher than 63 of 68 mayors and city and town managers around the state, as reported to the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns' annual salary survey last year.

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Copeland said his salary has been unchanged since before he took office five years ago as the city's first black mayor.

"State law says I cannot reduce an official's salary, so there is nothing I can do about it," he said. His compensation also is a combination of two paychecks, $62,104 for mayor and $67,303 for being CEO of the city utilities departments.

The town or city managers earned an average of $117,418 nationally, and elected mayors across the country earned an average of $57,290, according to a 2009 National League of Cities survey.

What do they do?

Mayors and town managers are expected to administer a community's government services and employees. The city and town council set the mayor's and manager's salary and in municipalities, they get the biggest paycheck.

Lowell Town Councilman Edgar Corns said he hopes to convince his fellow officials to hire a town manager soon.

"I don't think Lowell is big enough to become a city, but with just five councilmen everyone has a different interest and too much stuff gets overlooked. We need a town manager to keep the town running smoothly and look for grants like Cedar Lake, which has gotten millions in grants redoing their roads and sewers," Corns said.

The city of Whiting has a four-tiered system of rising salaries depending on whether the mayor has earned professional certifications and a university graduate degree.

Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said, "We have problems attracting people for anything less than $40,000 or $45,000 if they are working at a bank or somewhere else. A lot of small cities across the state have people run for office who have no background in finance, no college education, no qualifications whatsoever," Stahura said.

Stahura is himself bound by the tier system. He holds an IACT certification for municipal government. "So I get to move from Level 1 to Level 2. But since I went to college, but never got a degree, I cannot go any higher than that," he said. He forfeits the opportunity to receive an additional $5,700.

Hammond's McDermott said, "I always get the same percentage rate as employees. I'm the type of mayor who likes to give raises every year. I've given at least 1 percent every year. My justification has always been to just keep up.

"For a couple of years (the raise) was zero because of tough times, but we (elected officials) never get a better deal than the employees.

"Personally, I think I'm underpaid," McDermott said, noting several Hammond school principals make more money than he does.

"I remember a couple of years ago: Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, somebody was giving her a hard time, saying she isn't worth it. I'll bet there aren't a lot of Harvard Law grads who would want to be mayor of Gary for that money. I think Gary got a great deal by getting Karen Freeman-Wilson for that money.

"I'm a Notre Dame Law grad and been working my butt off for 12 years, and I make $105,000 a year," he said, adding a return to his law practice has always been in the back of his mind. 

"Being mayor of Hammond is a sacrifice financially. I've got the greatest job in Indiana. I love my job. I'm not complaining, but I don't hide from my salary. This is what I make," McDermott said.

Readers can access public employees salary in the Indiana Gateway database at: https://gateway.ifionline.org.

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Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.