ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County lawmakers spent close to two hours Tuesday haggling over raises for county workers in order to bring the tentative 2013 budget under the state's tax cap.
The county is allowed to increase its tax levy by 2.8 percent next year, according to the state's calculation. At a budget workshop last week, lawmakers chopped what had been a 26 percent tax hike down to just 2.6 percent.
Things got difficult Tuesday when the Essex County Board of Supervisors turned to planned 3 percent raises for management confidential employees, which includes supervisors, elected department heads, appointed department heads and some rank-and-file employees.
Early in the meeting, county Social Services Director John O'Neill and county Treasurer Mike Diskin told supervisors that 18 of the 24 department heads got together on Monday to discuss the tentative budget. O'Neill said a number of department heads had "sincere concerns regarding our ability to continue to deliver services" based on recommendations that came out of last week's workshop.
As O'Neill spoke, 11 department heads in attendance stood in the audience in an apparent show of solidarity.
"We strongly encourage you to maintain at least the 2 percent that you had considered, talked about, agreed on at the workshop to provide to non-department head management confidential staff," he said. "We're very concerned, when people don't get a raise (that) it results in a decrease in pay with inflation. So it's not just that they're holding level; they're making less.
"It's a real disincentive to us promoting people from within."
Reading from a prepared statement, Diskin said that on Jan. 1, 2013, a 2 percent reduction on the Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax will expire.
"What that does for management confidential and all of us is immediately puts you at a 2 percent loss in your net pay, because you're paying out more money (in FICA payroll tax)," he said. "The 2 percent increase that John mentioned would only put them back closer to what their net pay has been over the last two years."
Diskin added that department heads are concerned about how the county will be able to maintain its services in the years ahead, since the board's decision to use about $7 million in fund balance to lower the tax levy means the county will start 2013 with an $8 million budget gap.
County Manager Dan Palmer announced Monday that he will retire at year's end due to frustration at supervisors' handling of the budget. He had proposed a three-year plan to balance the budget, but many supervisors balked at the plan because it would include two years of double-digit tax levy increases.
"The outcome for 2014 is going to continue to be very bleak if we don't do something," Diskin said.
Following the remarks by O'Neill and Diskin, Palmer stressed that department heads called their Monday meeting independently of him.
"I did not attend this meeting; I did not ask for this meeting," Palmer said. "I don't want you to think that this was something that I directed them to do or somehow convinced them to do. This is entirely their feelings."
Jay town Supervisor Randy Douglas, the board's chairman, began discussions about the 3 percent raises by proposing to do away with them entirely. He noted that lawmakers didn't propose any layoffs in 2013, and that doing away with all raises would save the county $135,772.
"The cost of health insurance went up; the cost of retirement went up," Douglas said. "At this time, I can't support (raises)."
That budget amendment was swiftly voted down by fellow lawmakers.
Supervisors spent the next hour-and-a-half debating whom to give raises to and how much in an attempt to make the final cuts necessary to meet the tax cap. After a series of votes, the supervisors decided to cut raises for themselves and to give 2 percent raises to rank-and-file workers, appointed department heads, the county's three elected department heads - Diskin, county Clerk Joe Provoncha and Sheriff Richard Cutting - and the four county coroners.
Even with the reduced raises, the board had to vote to predict additional funds from an anticipated property tax sale to bring the budget under the tax cap.
The board also voted to use an extra $2.8 million from the fund balance to decrease the tax levy. The board hopes to restore that funding with $2.8 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements it expects to receive next year.
Requests from several contract agencies for $52,000 more in next year's budget were also removed, and supervisors cut appropriations at the Department of Social Services by $150,000. A total of $597,000 was removed from the Department of Public Works budget.
The board will host a special meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to vote on the tentative budget.
Contact Chris Morris at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or email@example.com.