BERLIN – A budget smaller than the previous year would seem to be an easy sell, but one Berlin elected official felt the reduction did not go far enough and proposed that staff salary increases be eliminated at the last minute.
“I don’t mean to be the naysayer or the pessimist,” said Berlin Councilwoman Paula Lynch. “I am a realist…I find it difficult to accept a budget with a 3-percent increase for all salaries.”
Lynch suggested delaying the budget by two weeks, reducing the increase to 1 percent and revisiting the budget and the increase in December.
“Yes, we’re very lucky. I don’t know what next year is going to bring. We don’t have a crystal ball,” said Councilwoman Lisa Hall, who agreed with Lynch and said she would not vote for the budget with the 3-percent salary raise.
A recent meeting with Delegate Norm Conway reinforced her concern over the near future: “He told me, hold onto your money. Next year is going to be brutal,” he said.
Councilman Dean Burrell said, ““I disagree with Paula.”
Times are trying, Burrell said, but the town is in a better situation than many governments, and employees need to be compensated fairly.
“I don’t think we need to wait on the budget this evening,” Burrell said.
The staff is largely responsible for the town’s good financial position, said Council Vice President Elroy Brittingham, alluding to the fact they cut everything they could. “The best way to reward your employees is money, a raise or not a raise but an increase.”
Lynch disagreed, saying, “Our role is like that of a Board of Trustees…Our first commitment and responsibility is to the taxpayers, not employees. It’s simply time to look at the overall picture.”
Lynch also raised a concern over budget information provided to the public, saying that every year the town government provides a summary of budget information, while this year the town provided the budget in its entirety only.
“That’s a little daunting,” Lynch said.
The council members voted 2 to 2 on Lynch’s motion to delay the budget with the reduction in salary increase. Councilman Troy Purnell was absent.
Mayor Gee Williams noted that a 3-percent salary increase added $99,916 to the budget. Going with a 1-percent salary increase would only save about $67,000.
“Next year builds on that,” said Lynch.
“It’s a valid point. Who knows what next year will bring. Next year could bring no increase at all…I see this as a cost of living increase,” said Williams. The 3-percent increase is based on the inflation rate, he said.
The mayor is empowered by the town charter to vote in the event of a 2-2 deadlock. Williams voted against delaying the budget.
“I, too, value the public. We’re here representing the public. A 3-percent increase is really not a lot of money,” said Burrell.
The public hearing held on the budget Monday night attracted few speakers.
The Treasure Chest owner Terri Sexton, a Main Street program member, supported the new economic development director position, to be filled by Michael Day who is currently part-time director of the town’s Main Street program. Worcester County Tourism Director and Berlin resident Lisa Challenger also supported the position. There is a lot of documentation nationally that having both a Main Street program and an economic development director in one town is worth it, Challenger said.
The council once again voted 2-2 on the motion to pass the town of Berlin budget, and Williams again broke the deadlock, casting his vote to approve the $13.6 million budget, $287,000 less than the amended fiscal year 2009 budge, and $596,000 less than the original fiscal year 2009 budget approved last June.