Chilmark approves COLA raises
Chilmark selectmen and the town finance committee approved a three-percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for all town employees that will cost taxpayers $52,931. They took the action at a joint meeting last week to discuss the $6.7 million, 2010 fiscal year operating budget they will present to voters at the annual town meeting on April 27.
Municipal employee COLAs have been the topic of much budget discussion across Martha's Vineyard in advance of town meeting season. At the Wednesday meeting the majority of selectmen and finance committee members argued that the town had successfully restrained budget growth and should not penalize employees.
During the three and a half hour meeting, the finance committee and selectmen began the evening with a proposed budget that was $93,541 lower than the FY 2008 budget approved last year. Those savings were reduced by an unforeseen $19,000 hike in the up-Island Regional School District assessment and approval of employee COLAs. [The Up-Island Regional School District school committee reduced the amount this week to about $11,000.]
The approved budget is $6,660,825, $20,574 less than the current budget and $92,000 below the amount that would require a Proposition 2.5 tax override.
The discussion of whether to grant COLAs sparked some sharp exchanges and divided the selectmen. Frank Fenner and Warren Doty favored the hikes in a meeting that was well attended by town employees, while J.B. Riggs Parker opposed them.
Mr. Fenner and Mr. Doty argued that real taxes have actually gone down in recent years, while Social Security payments have risen 4.7 percent. Tim Carroll, executive secretary, said that the town already lags behind other towns in pay rates.
Mr. Parker, a consistent opponent of pay raises, said it was not the time to give raises, and he asked that the COLA amount appear as a separate item in the budget, subject to voter approval at town meeting. "I don't think it's a responsible thing to do. I'm going to lose this argument, but at least explain the cost and let the voters know exactly how much money it is, so they can vote on it," he said.
The committee took no action on Mr. Parker's request to break out the COLAs.
Finance committee member Richard Williams chided Mr. Parker for asking that the COLA be listed separately. "You selectmen are the executives of this town. You should be leading this," he said, referring to the presentation of COLA costs at town meeting. His comment began an acrimonious exchange, as Mr. Parker took issue with Mr. Williams' comments about leadership.
Finance committee chairman Marshall Carroll intervened with a summary of the situation. "Our goal was to reduce the budget, in order to be able to give a cost of living increase. We've done that, so let's hear recommendations," he said. A flurry of suggestions followed for increases between one and three percent.
Leonard Jason, a town resident as well as building/zoning inspector for Chilmark and Edgartown, weighed in against COLAs. "I'd appreciate it, but Edgartown is not giving COLAs. This is a time to tighten our belts," Mr. Jason said. "Spend a day in my office and see what's happening in the building trades. I'm grateful I have a job."
Mr. Carroll called for a non-binding straw vote of the selectmen and finance committee. The majority favored increases of two to three percent. Mr. Parker was the sole hand for a zero percent increase.