Residents Question Need For Employee Pay Hikes

BERLIN — Mayor Gee Williams defended his decision to grant town employees a 3-percent pay raise this year at a public budget hearing Monday.

The main concerns about the budget were anxiety over dipping into the town’s contingency fund to finance the raises and worries that the move might add extra economic burden to town residents. Williams, however, remained confident that an employee pay raise was both merited and practical given the condition of Berlin compared to its neighbors.

“We’re pretty much in a stable condition,” he said.

But some town residents disagreed.

“The reality … is there are people facing foreclosures,” said Dianne Graham. “That’s the reality that I see.”

Graham added that many of her friends and neighbors were struggling and that effects of the 2008 national recession were still trickling down into towns and cities across the country.

“Berlin is not insulated from that effect,” she told Williams.

Graham said that her main issue with the budget was the 3-percent raise for town employees, specifically, where that money was coming from.

Williams’ plan necessitates moving money from the town’s contingency fund, an act which Graham was strictly against, saying that the fund was something the town needed in case of emergency and shouldn’t be used to grant employee raises.

The only exception to that rule, according to Graham, would be for the Berlin Police Department. She felt that the town needs to stay competitive with surrounding municipal police departments and if that means taking resources from the contingency, then that was acceptable.

“We need to protect those jobs,” she said.

While he admitted that there are “no guarantees,” Williams disagreed with Graham’s assessment of the town’s financial condition. He expressed sympathy for the residents Graham claimed were struggling, but asserted that, from everything he’d seen, the community had fared better than most through the recession.

“Berlin is doing better … we didn’t suffer as greatly as anticipated,” said Williams.

Williams also mentioned that more people were working in the town now then in pre-recession 2008. As for drawing from the contingency fund, Williams admitted that its primary goal was to serve as a backup during emergencies.

However, he asserted that the fund was also there for things like investing in unexpected opportunities or to support the town. Williams brought up the fact that the contingency fund had been growing for years and drawing from it would not have a large impact.

Debbie Ritz, an area teacher, echoed many of Graham’s statements, adding that she felt it was strange that Berlin employees were getting raises when most others in the county, including teachers like herself, had gone without normal pay increases for years.

“We’re all in this together,” she stated.

Though he acknowledged that many in the area, such as teachers, would not be getting a raise this year, Williams again referenced his belief that Berlin should not allow its neighbors to dictate the town budget.

“We paid the pain upfront,” he said, asserting that department heads had skimmed their budgets down an incredible degree, along with implementing other cost saving measures. Williams revealed that this year’s $13.6 million budget is 2-percent smaller than last year’s.

“We’re taking the conservative approach,” he said.

Town administrator Tony Carson agreed.

“We are conservative when we do our budgets,” he said. “We don’t overstate revenue; if anything, we understate it.”

Beyond whether or not the town could afford to grant raises, resident Dee Calisto wondered if they were actually justified.

“What are your criteria for raising these salaries?” she asked the council.

Calisto added that she hadn’t noticed any real improvements in customer service.

Williams disagreed emphatically, listing a number of changes implemented by town employees over the last few years that deserved rewarding.

“We’ve asked these people to do more with less,” said Councilman Dean Burrell.

Williams also explained that employees were doing a lot of work in-house that had traditionally been contracted to outside agencies, saving both time and money.

The majority of the council supported Williams, though some maintained reservations.

“I’m very conflicted about this,” admitted Councilwoman Paula Lynch. “I’m not nearly as optimistic as the mayor.”

However, in the end she decided that the pay increase was fair and affordable for Berlin, even if wasn’t for other municipalities.

“Why penalize these people who are doing a terrific job because times are tough?” she asked, saying that Berlin “appears to be a prosperous community.”

Councilman Troy Purnell also thought the town and its infrastructure were doing well.

“It’s in the best condition I’ve ever seen it,” he stated.

The lone voice on the council against the raise was Lisa Hall. 
“We need to hold onto every dime we have,” she warned her colleagues. “I can’t vote for this. I can’t do it.”

Despite her arguments, the rest of the council voted in favor of including the raise in the fiscal year 2012 budget, which passed 4-1, with only Hall opposing.