Town meeting agendas set up a clash over COLAs
In January, the Martha's Vineyard Finance Association sent a letter to every town government and public agency on Martha's Vineyard, presenting a reasoned argument for town employees to forego cost of living adjustments (COLAs) this year.
"COLAs are intended to compensate for inflation, but prices, particularly gasoline and heating costs, have been falling," wrote the association, which is made up of financial advisory committee (FinCom) members from Island towns. The association recognized that most town employees are working under union contracts with raises negotiated when the economy was in better shape, but they called on Vineyarders' sense of community to pull together in tough times.
"The COLA might add a couple of percent to each person's income, but those few percents add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars across Martha's Vineyard," wrote the association. "Foregoing the COLA would save all six towns money and would help preserve as many jobs as possible."
Dollars and sense
The process of setting cost of living increases varies from town to town, but it is the selectmen who have the final say over proposed town budgets, where those salary increases are reflected in higher personnel costs. Ultimately it is up to voters at town meetings, those who must fund salary increases through taxes, to approve, amend, or reject the budget recommendations. Historically, however, voters rarely make wholesale changes in the budgets presented at town meeting.
With most of the budgets in Island towns now set, and town meetings approaching quickly, the degree to which local governments heeded the finance association's call to hold the line on COLAs varies widely from town to town. Aquinnah, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Dukes County ruled out cost of living adjustments early in the budget process. In general, according to various town officials, those decisions met with more acceptance and praise than complaints by town employees. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs propose annual or "step" raises to non-union employees that mirror those in union contracts. Aquinnah town officials are still calculating their budgets, but were seriously considering foregoing the 2-percent step raise called for in the town's new compensation schedule. The Martha's Vineyard Commission granted what it first called COLAs, then called merit raises, but does not historically grant an additional increase to cover the rate of inflation. Chilmark, Tisbury, and West Tisbury propose a combination of step raises and COLAs.
In West Tisbury, if voters approve budgets as proposed, most town workers will receive a 5-percent step raise, and a 3.6-percent cost of living adjustment in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Because of an adjustment to the compensation plan made last year, nearly all employees are due for a step raise next year. The board of selectmen does not support the COLA recommended by the personnel board and included in the budget, but instead voted to endorse a 2-percent COLA recommended by the financial advisory committee. West Tisbury voters will see the effect of both COLA levels in the budgets printed in the town meeting warrant.