Council supports municipal salary increases
Municipal department heads listened in on Monday night as the Town Council discussed their possible wage increases at the third fiscal budget workshop. The proposed 4.1-percent increase, some $820,000, added to the general town budget is "just under the state limit," according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser.
After an introductory review of budget increases since 2002, Keiser addressed "the elephant in the room," the municipal salaries. He showed salary levels for department managers in 15 communities around the state that were consistently higher than wages in Jamestown. "Our finance director's salary is dead last," he added.
An unidentified dark-haired woman interrupted the town administrator with a question. The Town Council chairman asked her to wait until the end of the presentation for comments before she said, "You're comparing apples to bananas."
Keiser compared expenditures of town staffing and public works against other towns, stressing that these factors should be considered when deciding salaries, not just how many people are in the community. A community's level of urbanism can be measured in how much it spends on public works, he argued. As an example, Keiser pointed out that the island spends almost as much on public works as Narragansett, a much larger community in population and land size. "There's a difference between the levels of expertise of managing four thousand people on an island with limited resources as opposed to spreading four thousand residents over a lot of land," he said. Comparable jobs in the private sector were much higher, he added.
Town Councilman Robert Sutton said he refused to argue about the proposed wage increases. "When you look at salary and salary adjustments, you must look at the people in those positions who are giving excellent service. For a number of years, the town has carried a surplus and that's very important."
"I look at how people are performing. If they are doing a good job, pay them. What's the big deal?" Sutton said.
Councilor Bill Kelly agreed with Sutton, saying, "We are looking at consistently below the mean. I would put a face on those positions. We're talking about paying people a competitive salary, a reasonable salary." He mentioned three or four department heads by name and talked about their "outstanding" work. "And Tina, you are a pain in the butt to get money out of," he joked in praise of the frugal practices of the town's finance director Tina Collins. "If this budget is approved as is, we are not looking at anything that is not the ordinary inflation adjustment."
Kelly went on to ask about the benefits package, totaling over $1.3 million, with more than $700,000 in healthcare coverage alone. He suggested a review of workers' compensation, and asked if possible fraud in ongoing claims might surface that would impact the high price tag. Keiser agreed to look into any possible abuses.
Kelly also asked if any improvement could be made in the quarter of a million dollars of proposed retirement funds. Keiser explained the increase in retirement pay was a requirement by state law, but added that he continued to research other possibilities that would lower the burden.
The town administrator commented that spending in Jamestown is manageable under the new tax levy, adopted through the Paiva-Weed bill. The new law caps at 5.25 percent, the amount a town can increase its budget. In previous years, increases in the town's budget reached over six percent at times, Keiser said.
Before the workshop switched gears to address the school department budget, Town Council chairman Julio DiGiando commented that Jamestown has become the wealthiest town in the state, "yet we have the lowest property tax in the state."
As the evening wore on, seats in the council chambers filled to near capacity. Time ran out for general town budget questions from the public. The council will continue the workshop on Monday, March 31.