Berlin Council Eyes Employee Raises

BERLIN — Mayor Gee Williams made three additions to Berlin’s proposed fiscal year 2012 budget during Monday’s Mayor and Council that if finalized would mean a raise for town employees and more money in the town’s Special Apportions’ fund.

Two of the three proposals met with unanimous support; however, one council member spoke out against a potential 3-percent raise for town employees.

“What kind of message are we sending to the rate payers?” asked Councilwoman Lisa Hall.

According to Hall, the economy is not stable enough to justify raising employee pay.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year or the year after,” said Hall, pointing out the country was still in a recession and that many communities were still stinging from the recent economic downturn.

Williams agreed that the country wasn’t in the best shape at the moment, but stated that national issues did not necessarily translate to municipalities, at least not to the same degree.

“We did our cutting up front,” he said, explaining that town department heads had trimmed their individual budgets beyond what was expected.

As a result, the fiscal year 2012 budget was more flexible than it has been the last few years. On top of the paring down by department heads, Berlin has also been experiencing considerable economic growth, according to Williams.

“I think employees should share in that progress,” he told the council.

Williams added that the proposed 3-percent raise was “only fair and appropriate” given the talent of town employees and their commitment to put in extra effort.

“We’re doing a lot more in house,” said Williams, saying that many jobs which had traditionally been outsourced were now handled by town employees.

Williams felt that Hall’s worries were reasonable, given the state of the national economy and many other local municipalities, but he asserted that Berlin shouldn’t make financial decisions based on the condition of its neighbors.

“We try to live within the means that we have,” said Williams.

Williams brought up the fact that employees wouldn’t actually receive the full 3-percent raise. A new Maryland law requires government employees to pay 2 percent of their salary into a state retirement fund, which means that 3-percent increase would only be a 1-percent raise in reality, as opposed to a 2-percent pay cut. Added to the fact that employees didn’t receive any type of raise last year, Williams felt that the change to the budget was justified.

Councilman Troy Purnell supported the pay raise, though the council had initially thought it unlikely at the start of budget season.

“It’s a moving target every year,” said Purnell.

However, Purnell agreed with Williams’ statement that town funds had been appropriated over the year efficiently enough that there was stretching room with this year’s finances.

Purnell added, “It’s certainly not something we can do every year,” referring to the pay increase. But for this year at least, he believed a 3-percent bump to employee paychecks was feasible.

The Berlin Police Department (BPD) received special attention during the discussion of employee pay. Questions of whether Berlin is competitive with other municipalities when it comes to attracting police officers have been raised at previous council meetings.

Williams hopes to address those worries by including a salary scale adjustment at all levels of the BPD, except for the positions of lieutenant and chief. All told, the adjustments would cost $34,291, a number Williams considers a low price to keep Berlin competitive. He added that, besides attracting new recruits to the police force, the adjustment should encourage current officers to stay with the town as opposed to transferring to higher paying areas.

“If they [residents] don’t feel safe, everything else doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” said Williams in support of the adjustment.

While Hall was hesitant about a blanket raise for all employees, she did voice her approval of the adjustment for the BPD, agreeing that it would make the town more competitive

The third addition to the current budget was $10,000 being placed in the town’s Special Apportions’ fund. Earlier in the year, representatives of Diakonia, a charitable organization that helps feed and shelter distressed residents, approached the council asking for $7,500 to help keep up with the community’s demand.

The $7,500 would come out of the Special Apportions’ fund with the remaining $2,500 allocated to possible future Economic Development Department projects.

“That department is so active,” said Williams. “The support from the community is fantastic. We don’t want to stop the momentum.”

Even if all three of Williams’ suggestions are added to the final budget, he pointed out that the town would still have a $147,000 contingency fund for either “emergency or opportunity.”

“None of this would affect the bottom line of the proposed budget,” he told the council, citing the healthy reserves Berlin is able to draw upon.

All three measures were voted into the budget unanimously, with the exception of the 3-percent employee raise, which Hall voted against.

A public hearing to discuss the budget will be held on May 23.

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