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Committee concerned over budget increases during difficult times

October 14, 2009
After a sub-budget committee broke down the town clerk/tax collector budget proposal for this year, some members still couldn't shake their concern over the increase in merit raises, tentatively set at a 3-percent increase for town employees under union contracts.

Terry Stewart sat on one of two sub-committees and presented his findings to the Budget Committee last Thursday, addressing where numbers still appear to be high, and perhaps where they can be cut down in an already tight budget.

The overall town clerk/tax collector budget currently adds up to $371,168, although changes may be made to the budget soon, since the town estimated average wage increase percentages. Dunn said the new scale for yearly merit raises runs on a scale from 0-4 vs. 1-5, although the raise is listed as 3 percent in the proposed budget. Committee members said they would like to see the percentage on the scale decrease.

As of right now, merit raises for the year will cost the town $3,264, and Stewart mentioned that retirement numbers were high, at $18,479 as a result of the New Hampshire retirement "crises" developing. He explained that the merit raises came from the town administrator, and not the tax collector and town clerk employees.

Stewart pointed out that membership dues, mandated by the state law, appeared to have increased as well at $2,956, and with the increase in merit raises, he said he wasn't so sure how this would turn out.

"Be aware. This is noteworthy in the overall budget. In some cases we see some pretty big numbers. The financial economy is sort of a mess; I don't feel too right about it," said Stewart. "Membership dues are always a bit of a contention for me. It might be a good year to do without them for a year. I wouldn't say forever though."

Stewart added that he understood membership dues were mandatory for employees such as the town tax collector.

As for the union debate brought up at the first official Budget Committee meeting the previous week, chair of the committee Dick Hickok found it fitting to discuss the topic again.

Several people have talked about the increase of wages, said Hickok, who asked the Town Administrator Scott Dunn how many town employees work under a union contract.

Dunn said they have 14 members in the police union and 17 in the Department of Public Works.

"Half of the work force there (are union members at DPW) and there is really no ability to take merit pay out of those two budgets. There has been some discretion on your budget recommendations," said Dunn.

Although Dunn made a valid point, committee members contested that wage increases for union members alone during tough economical times may send the wrong message to non-union members, and taxpayers.

"It sends a message to the average taxpayer that we are out there struggling and they (union members) are getting a raise per year," said Hickok.

Stewart said that although merit raises are mandatory in union budgets, nothing in a union contract suggests that other aspects of the budget cannot be cut.

"This body could say it is up to you what you do with the dollars. It would be up to the unions to decide where to cut," said Stewart, suggesting that the committee give them a certain amount of money, and allow union members to decide where it goes. "I wouldn't even be having this conversation if it wasn't for the economy."

Although Stewart has brought up the issue before, he admitted that he did not yet have enough information to continue on with a motion or a plan of action concerning merits at this time.

Selectman John O'Brien mentioned that union members don't receive raises if they don't do a good job, and suggested that percentage cuts may give taxpayers a nice break.

Dunn explained that the town budget may also be subject to change, since the maximum wage increase for union members is 4-percent, yet the budget uses 3-percent as a tentative average, meaning the cost can go down.

"There's the likelihood that they wouldn't use the whole 3 percent budgeted in. Next year taxpayers may have a break," said Dunn.

Dunn explained that this current portion of the town budget is still lower than last year's budget, which is why they hadn't yet discussed merit raises as an issue in great detail.

The town could have decreased merit wages, reduced the size of staff, or reduced the work week, said Dunn.

"All three were on the table. Chances are one of the plans would have been seriously discussed, but we didn't move in that direction because the budget was less than last year," said Dunn.

O'Brien emphasized that the selectmen wanted to avoid cutting employees at all costs, and related the government to a business.

"Many employees are looked at more importantly during bad economic times. We certainly wouldn't want to reduce their services," said O'Brien.

Budget committee member Skip Murphy agreed.

"If we reduce their staff they can't produce the same products or services they did before. In these times, they understand not everyone is getting more services," said Murphy.

Murphy asked the Selectmen if they ever ranked the importance of town departments in terms of funding.

O'Brien said this was a "tough thing to identify" but said the board has viewed DPW the most for cuts, even though more than half of the town budget is compiled of safety services.

Stewart mentioned that whether the committee were discussing a business or the government, that a there would be a big cost in the reduction of employees. He brought up merit wage raises again, and pointed out that allowing employees to keep their job is one thing, but to give them more money during hard times is another.

"My question is, why the merits. A lot of people are making a choice. In this case we are protecting people, but we also gave them raises. I know it's good to keep the people, but then give them raises, why," asked Stewart.

The committees asked why the taxpayers own needs weren't taken into consideration first.

"That's the dichotomy of it," answered Murphy. "Union folks have it built in. When people are hurting, and money is really scarce, if we lost a little services, that's ok, versus paying more to maintain services. We're not saying get rid of anybody, but 3 percent is a lot to ask for."

Margo Weeks reminded the committee that 3 percent was a tentative decision on a 0-4 scale for merit raise increases, and that not all the money had to be used.

Although some Budget Committee members still wish to obtain more information on merit wages, the committee decided to accept this portion of the town budget for now, and will continue on with another section of the town administration budget next meeting.

Matin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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