Warren Town Council broke the rules in approving raises

Posted

To the editor:
Stephen Smith's comments last week on the Warren Town Council’s final budget hearing were right on target. I, too, was at that meeting, along with less than a handful of spectators, and three of the four department heads who were seeking raises. The manager was not in attendance, there was no legal counsel, no newspaper coverage, no videotape of the meeting, only the town clerk taking minutes. The tax collector and tax assessor were there. I was a member of the Charter Review Commission that proposed a new budget procedure to replace the Financial Town Meeting and I have been regularly attending budget hearings to monitor how well the new process is functioning. And I believe that the process can work, provided the town council upholds its own rules.
The meeting to which Mr. Smith refers should, at this stage in the budget process, have simply been a rubber stamp, final approval. The budget had been prepared by the manager, reviewed line-by-line by the council at open meetings, given preliminary approval, had one subsequent change made by introducing a petition — all in accordance with the Charter. The final tax rate had been determined, as were all the new exemption figures. The only steps left were a public hearing and final approval. What was expected to be a brief and smooth conclusion was anything but when councilman John Hanley made a motion that four salaried department heads who in unforeseen circumstances are required to work outside of their regular hours, should receive a substantial raise in salary. It appeared that some of the council members were blindsided by this proposal. After much confused discussion, Chris Stanley made the motion to which Stephen Smith referred — to give each of the four people $1,500 in their longevity fund instead of a salary increase. When it was pointed out that one of the four doesn't get longevity, the vote was withdrawn. Mr. Abbruzzi was on his computer providing numbers to the council. Votes were being made and withdrawn. If a vote for raises changed the tax rate, the exemptions just approved would have to be refigured and voted on again. There was a scramble to see if money could be taken from elsewhere in the budget to fund these raises without changing the tax rate and exemptions. Kudos to Steve Thompson, who apparently realized that this entire fiasco was inherently wrong, and refused to vote for any of the motions that were flying around.
I went to the podium and reminded the council that the Charter specifies that after preliminary approval, the only way to make a budget change is by bringing forth a timely petition, properly signed and approved, and posted in the meeting agenda as had been done a few weeks previous. In addition, the budget currently being finalized already provided for these four people to get 2.5 percent raises, and that without a petition, they must now wait until next year's budget cycle to request a salary increase, that they had missed the deadline.  All this was to no avail. The council found a line item in the budget that would cover the cost of the increases — an additional 2.6 percent per person. These increases, that were voted on at the eleventh hour without a petition, are reflected in the budget that was advertised in last Wednesday's newspaper.
Jane MacDougall
500 Water St.

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