Town employees offer to take nine unpaid days off to help balance the budget in 2010

Town employees have offered through their union to take nine unpaid days off in 2010, helping to balance the budget and eliminating the need to reduce hours for seven positions.

Union employees say they will accept a 2.5 percent cost of living pay increase. Non-union employees expect an increase of less than 1 percent.

Town Administrator King Fitch told the Town Council of the union's offer at a special budget workshop Nov. 4, as union representatives listened in the audience.

Councilwoman Carrie Lacher, who on Jan. 1 becomes mayor, called the offer "incredible" and said it was a testament to the employees' dedication to the town. She asked the Town Council to match the gesture by reducing its number of meetings to cut expenses. The Town Council has four regularly scheduled meetings a month — at noon and 5:30 p.m. every first and third Thursday. Each council member receives $85 a meeting, the mayor $148.

Council members Carrie Brooks, Liz Illg and Noel Monin said reducing the number of council meetings to twice a month would impact the council's ability to keep up with its workload, and could dissuade residents from seeking election to the council.

"I've been on the council for 10 years, and there is so much more work now," Brooks said.

As a compromise, Councilwoman Anna Maria de Freitas suggested that the council reduce its meetings the same percentage as the employees' workday reduction. The council directed Fitch to develop a plan.

The council also agreed to:

— Cut in half the amount of utility increases for 2010. That means, sewer rates would go up 5.5 percent, rather than 11; stormwater rates would go up 4 percent, rather than 8; and water rates would go up 2.5 percent, rather than 5. A series of rate increases are planned to raise money for capital improvements. Replacing the transmission line that carries water to town from the treatment plant on Wold Road is expected to cost $6 million to $8 million.

The rate-hike reduction is a compromise. Lacher suggested postponing rate increases, saying that some projects — like enlarging Trout Lake dam — could be postponed. But Monin said he wanted to "stick firm" to the town's rate plan in order to avoid large rate increases later. Town councils in the 1980s and 1990s held off on raising sewer rates, but their successors were forced to substantially raise rates at one time to cover the cost of the new $7.5 million wastewater treatment plant.

— Raise the cable franchise fee 6 percent, rather than 3 percent, to raise money for parks. This was suggested by Monin. The town parks department maintains Cahail Park, Memorial Park, West Street Park, an unnamed park in the Evergreen neighborhood, and the public benches at various downtown locations.

— Develop a plan to ensure the parking enforcement program breaks even. It is projected to be $20,000 in the hole next year, largely because of a decline in the number of fines being issued.

— Move $15,000 in financial support for the Chamber of Commerce from the general fund to the 2 percent lodging tax collected for tourism facilities.

— Keep the downtown litter program in place.

The preliminary town budget projects $9.45 million in revenue and $9.97 million in expenses. The budget shows all 14 funds finishing 2010 with money in the bank — the Refuse Fund barely, with $5,610 left over. There will be no increase in refuse rates in 2010.

"The county raised rates but we did not raise ours," Town Treasurer Wendy Picinich said. "We absorbed the increase because we didn't want to put another rate increase on residents. But we're running on thin ice."

All told, the town will begin 2010 with a total of $12 million in its 14 funds — $10 million of that is in Capital Reserve — and finishing 2010 with $11 million, with $9.9 million in Capital Reserve.

Eliminated from the 2010 budget: Funding for maintenance of the Mullis Community Senior Center emergency power generator, all street projects except an overlay on Spruce Street and Spring Street, all equipment for the fire department.

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