The board of finance’s meeting Monday night started with a dramatic decision to demand wage freezes from all town employees.
But by the end of the four-hour meeting, the board changed course.
John “Bill” Sheehan, a Democrat, started the meeting by asking the board in principal to cut the amount of each wage increase in each budget, essentially forcing the unions to choose layoffs or a wage freeze. Democrat George Peteros and Republicans Norm Glidden and Brian Vachris agreed with the proposal, with Republicans Ron Fedor and Alan Wilensky opposing.
Yet when it came to cutting each budget, Vachris changed his mind, saying the move was unconstitutional. The end result was some employees were facing a wage freeze and others not, even within the same union.
Because of the confusion, the overall wage freeze probably has no chance, Sheehan said.
“(Vachris’s decision) probably kills it,” he said.
How It Began
Sheehan began the meeting by reading a letter to the board, asking it to cut the amount of the contracted raises in each budget. The board of finance does not have the power, by law, to demand a wage freeze.
Peteros, Vachris and Glidden agreed with him; Fedor and Wilensky did not. The assumption going into each budget was that the finance board would cut the amount of each raise in the budget.
For the library commission, the first budget, that happened. Salaries were decreased $16,459 within the budget, the amount of the wage increase. The motion was supported by Vachris, Glidden, Peteros and Sheehan.
Things changed drastically during the town clerk’s budget hearing. Sheehan motioned to cut $1,754 from the administration’s salaries, the amount of the increase.
Yet this time, only Glidden and Peteros supported the cut. Vachris sided with Fedor and Wilensky, so the motion failed.
“The Constitution says the state or town cannot pass any law that infringes on a contract,” Vachris explained. “This would infringe on a contract.”
The board of finance has the right to put the budget at any level it pleases, per order of the town charter. The U.S. Constitution does not contradict that charter.
Vachris, in an interview after the meeting, admitted the board of finance has the power to put the budget at any number it wants. He voted for some salaries that were “the best we could do” and others where “households wouldn’t get hurt.”
“The change has to come from Hartford,” he said, arguing the state’s arbitration laws were to blame for the raises.
The move left Sheehan and Peteros literally shaking their heads. Glidden, meanwhile, questioned Vachris directly.
“You can’t say something in the beginning of the meeting and then change halfway through,” Glidden said. “You said you were going to do something in the beginning, and then it changed.”
Wilensky, despite being opposed to the demand for a wage freeze, agreed with Glidden.
“You really punched a hole in the raft with that one,” he said.
Sheehan and Peteros remained mostly quiet, with Peteros jokingly adding, “Who said things have to make sense?”
Steward refused to comment on Vachris’ decision and how it would affect the board of selectmen’s ability to ask for a wage freeze. The board of selectmen is the only board that can demand a wage freeze.
Cuts In Some Areas And Not In Others
Later in the meeting, Vachris agreed to the proposal to cut the emergency management’s salary by the wage increase. However, on the police patrols and detectives, the largest wage increase, Vachris voted against cutting the raises.
Patrol salaries increased $51,367, the largest single increase in any town budget. Vachris approved that increase.
Reasoning For The Wage Freeze
Sheehan submitted a letter arguing for the wage freeze. Later he said the town’s employees’ salaries were “livable,” and although the savings would be small, it is not fair to increase public salaries while private sector salaries are flat.
Peteros supported the freeze immediately, as did Glidden. Many senior citizens live on $800 a month, and an increase in taxes would greatly affect their life, Glidden said.
He added that 1,600 families in town have families have members who are unemployed or underemployed.
A wage freeze of all town employees would save $200,000, acccording to Sheehan. If implemented, it would save the average taxpayer $3.60, Finance Director Rudy Beers said.
Fedor and Wilensky both disagreed with the cuts to salaries because it was too little notice, they said. Also the police union just , so cutting it a month later would make little sense, they said.
Steward agreed. The unions would reject the cut almost immediately, and it would damage the town’s credibility in future negotiating contracts, he said.
The board did make many other small cuts in the nine budgets it heard, some as small as $50. The registrars of voters', ethics commission's, library's, harbor management's, Representative Town Meeting's, town clerk's, board of finance's, emergency management's and police department's budget were all heard and acted on.
The cuts made by the finance board will have almost no affect on the mill rate. If the rest of the budgets stay the same, taxes will rise 6 percent in July.