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It’s great working for the Town of Walpole

August 5, 2011

Last month, Governor Deval Patrick announced that 4,000 state managers will receive a three percent pay raise this year, costing the state a total of about $9.9 million. The governor thought it was only fair, because the state’s unionized employees are already set to receive a similar pay hike this year, and the managers have not seen their pay go up since 2007 while being forced to take furlough days.

Yet, criticism of the governor’s decision was intense and immediate. “The governor needs a reality check,” read a blistering editorial in The Brockton Enterprise. “Now is not the time for management raises, the merits of which may be debated another day,” it opined.

Similar news that the state government is handing out millions in raises to other employees earned similar criticism.

Although Patrick did not back down in his decision, the trend against giving raises to government employees has been particularly noticeable during the past year as the economy continues to stumble. In Beverly, Mayor Bill Scanlon announced recently that no town or school employees will be receiving raises this year. In Mansfield, Town Manager Bill Ross declined a raise this year, citing the town’s financial pressures. In Cambridge, city employees and members of the City Council will forego raises this year. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, in Walpole, no such sacrifices will be made in this year’s budget, and no public outrage appears to exist because of this fact. Most of the town’s employees will not experience any freeze in their pay this year, and even non-unionized town workers will get one and one half percent raises this year. The Town Administrator and Department Heads will also walk away with raises this year, unlike their counterparts in many other communities across the state and nation.

In addition, town employees will continue to receive longevity pay, a perk that is largely unheard of in the private sector. Town employees earn longevity pay after a certain number of years on the job, regardless of whether they are doing their job better then than in their first year. On the municipal side of the budget, longevity pay consumes nearly $100,000 in tax dollars.

Times are tough. The unemployment rate in Walpole in June 2011, the most recent data available, was 6.3 percent, the same as May 2011. Many businesses continue to freeze compensation or lay employees off.

Town employees in Walpole are given raises as “cost-of-living adjustments” and through “step increases.” Step increases are basically automatic raises, since most employees move from one “step” to a higher one every year anyway and thus earn a higher salary.

President Obama ordered this year that federal workers will not be getting step increases this year, and Walpole town officials should follow suit. If the federal government workforce is not permitted to have step increases in a tough financial situation, neither should town employees.

Meanwhile, a “cost-of-living adjustment” is essentially another term for a raise. Town workers are given an increase in their salary to supposedly reflect the increased cost of living.

Of course the cost of living is going up, but it is going up for everyone – even those who are unemployed or have the misfortune of working for an employer who is not giving out raises this year. For the second year in a row, Social Security recipients across the nation are not receiving cost-of-living increases in their regular payments, and much of the federal workforce will similarly not be getting cost-of-living increases this year.

Furthermore, the cost of living is going up in Walpole too, as homeowners will be paying substantially more in property taxes this year. The sacrifices in cost-of-living should be shared by those who work for the town, not just those who live here.

No one is saying that Walpole municipal employees are not working hard enough. Nor is there anyone denying that a pay freeze would affect town employees and their families. But Walpole residents have faced and continue to face many of the same hardships that town employees are facing, experiencing pay freezes and working at jobs for which they will never get access to longevity pay or non merit-based pay raises.

Every town resident is being asked to pay more every year in taxes and fees to pay for the rising costs of maintaining the town payroll. It is time for the town to rein in those costs and stop shoving it off to the taxpayers to deal with.

The idea of managing the town payroll in a more conservative manner is not new. Russell Jones, a conservative candidate for selectman in this year’s town election, publicly suggested during the campaign that employee raises should be based off of performance and merit, as they are in the private sector, and not automatic. Selectman Chris Timson also proposed earlier this year that town employee raises should be based off of the fiscal conditions of the town, rather than be automatically mandated.

Going forward, town budgeting is only going to become far more difficult. Jones and Timson have some good ideas, but it will take the rest of our town officials to realize that it is time for meaningful compensation reform in Walpole before any changes occur.

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