The Bay State’s soaring local government employee pay has eclipsed the national average in what one fiscal watchdog is calling a “warning sign” to city and town leaders that taxpayers may not always be able to pick up the tab.
In the past decade, wages for cops, firefighters, teachers and City Hall employees went up nearly 24 percent nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In Massachusetts during the same period, from 2007 to 2017, wages for those city and town employees rose by 40 percent, the statistics show.
That rate was about 5 points higher in Essex and Middlesex counties, where Lowell and Lawrence sit.
“This data is a warning sign,” said Greg Sullivan, research director at the Pioneer Institute nonprofit think tank. “Massachusetts far exceeds the rest of the country in total wages.”
He said the high cost of health insurance and unfunded pension liabilities are also “worrisome” as municipal leaders struggle to balance the books.
“It’s a looming problem going forward,” Sullivan, the state’s former inspector general, added.
The public sector — including federal employees — makes up more than 20 percent of the U.S. economy, according to federal labor statistics.
In Massachusetts, those state and federal employees make up about 13 percent of the workforce, state economic officials say.
Job growth in the public sector remains mostly flat — but it’s the bump in salaries that has economists sounding caution.
Sullivan said county figures show steady growth in public sector salaries, according to labor statistics he studied:
• Essex County has seen local government salaries grow by 145 percent in the past decade. Yet the number of employees has kept about the same at 30,000.
• Middlesex County pay has jumped by almost the same percentage for its 62,000-plus municipal hires.
• Suffolk County has seen fewer employees over the past decade, but pay has grown for those 26,000-plus still on the books.
• Statewide, the number of local government employees has climbed to 271,000 as their pay has kept pace with others.
• In the private sector over the same decade studied, job growth has climbed and pay as well, but at a slightly slower rate at 134 percent.
This all comes as unemployment nationwide has dipped to 3.9 percent as of April.
“Federal databases don’t lie,” said Pioneer’s Sullivan. “The salary growth in the public sector is why municipalities are tax-strapped. It’s all putting pressure on the taxpayers.”