BERLIN – Town council members continue to advocate for employee raises despite Mayor Zack Tyndall’s recommendations.
In a budget work session this week, council members said they didn’t support the cuts to cell phone and vehicle allowances Tyndall proposed. They also called for some sort of cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to be included for employees in the coming fiscal year’s spending plan.
“These cuts will destroy morale, will hurt the town as a whole,” Councilman Jay Knerr said.
The budget reviewed this week, which as proposed is balanced with $6.8 million in revenues and expenditures, is based on the $.815 tax rate adopted by the council last month. While Tyndall asked for salaries to remain flat across all departments, Town Administrator Jeff Fleetwood asked officials to consider a nominal increase for staff. Fleetwood also asked the council to consider reinstating the $50/month cell phone allowance employees have had for the past eight years rather than the $36/month rate proposed by Tyndall.
“If we do not do something for the employee group I firmly believe professionally that we’re taking a step back,” Fleetwood said.
He also asked officials to not eliminate the vehicle allowances currently received by three employees.
Tyndall said he was recommending a reduction in the cell phone allowance because some employees had work stations. He also cited a study commissioned by Samsung that said the median cell phone reimbursement rate was $36.
Knerr said he’d like to see a change like that phased in with new hires.
Tyndall pointed out that employees also received a discount from their cell phone providers for being municipal employees and that he’d reached out to other towns and found them to provide very few cell phone allowances. Berlin currently has 42 employees receiving the reimbursements.
“During COVID, quite frankly every general fund employee is getting a cell phone reimbursement,” Fleetwood said.
Knerr stressed that he didn’t want to hurt employees. Councilman Dean Burrell questioned the date of the study Tyndall referenced, pointing out that employees had to check emails and that impacted their data usage.
“Those rates have changed tremendously within the last three to four years,” he said.
Burrell added that he thought the council had approved the tax rate increase — from $.80 to $.815 — in order to reinstate the employee related cuts Tyndall proposed.
“As I stated that evening the amount of the 1.5 cents is not adequate to cover all of the requests the council made that evening,” Tyndall said. “I made that clear the evening of the 22nd.”
The cell phone reduction from $50 to $36 is expected to save the town $8,725. A 2% COLA would cost roughly $120,000. Tyndall said the 1.5 cent tax increase brought the town an extra $69,700.
The issue of vehicle allowances, currently provided to three employees, was also discussed. Council members supported moving the money into those individuals’ salaries and no longer referring to it as a vehicle allowance.
Tyndall said those allowances were calculated based on an employee’s travel to and from town hall from their home.
“How it was originally arrived at or why I do not know but I could not in good faith present a budget that had that in it,” he said.
Councilwoman Shaneka Nichols said she found it hard to take away something that had been provided to an employee at the time they were hired eight years ago.
Planning Director Dave Engelhart explained the vehicle allowances like the one he received were provided because the employee handbook said department heads were meant to have take-home vehicles and not all of them did. He said taking away things like the vehicle allowance and cell phone reimbursement felt like punishment.
“If you take those away you are punishing me for what I think is extraordinary performance,” he said. “I’m sorry to toot my own horn but Carolyn Duffy and I, as two (planning department) employees, we handle what five employees used to do in the past with a third of the activity. I take it as a personal affront to be asked to take less and keep going backward when it should be moving in the other direction for our performance and our loyalty.”
Tyndall said they were a tremendous asset to the town.
“People cherish the work you do but we do have some financial constraints,” he said. “I hope you understand that it’s not easy.”
Councilman Jack Orris said he wanted to see a 1% COLA and the allowances included in the budget.
Tyndall said that when the budget was introduced, it would be no different than any other ordinance and could be amended.
“The dialogue here this evening is very helpful but we are also constrained by the available money that we have,” he said. “If we have an endless source, there’s a lot of stuff we would choose to continue to fund or fund greater but that’s not the case.”
Burrell advocated for compromise.
“I really do hope that before we get to that point we can try to at least see each other’s point of view and understand that this council I think really feels strongly about reinstituting those items that we feel should be provided to our staff…,” he said. “Unless we support staff where they’re coming from, what good are we? What I’m trying to get to is the services that are being provided — not by us, we don’t provide any direct services to the citizens of the Town of Berlin — but it’s the staff. I do believe we are, with considering what has been withdrawn from the budget related to staff, I do believe we are compromising the quality of services that will be provided to the citizens of the Town of Berlin. Our citizens are accustomed to a certain level of performance by staff. Withdrawing these things I believe will really hinder that performance in that overall quality of services provided to the citizens of our town.”
Tyndall said that just to put the requests for COLA in perspective, council members should consider the fact increases would go to the utility fund employees as well. He said that would mean rate increases or the elimination of the few capital purchases budgeted.
A utility fund budget work session is set for April 26.