ELIZABETHTOWN - Tension ran high at the Essex County Board of Supervisors' year end meeting Dec. 30 as officials discussed the approval of pay raises for employees in management positions.
Pointing to a bleak economic recession, a handful of supervisors spoke out against the annual raises, which traditionally have mirrored those given to union employees; set at 3.95 percent for 2009.
Conflict first arose over a resolution reappointing County Manager Daniel Palmer, who was first appointed in August to serve the remainder of Cliff Donaldson Jr.'s term following his resignation.
The resolution included a specific salary for Palmer, who would serve as both county manager and director of information systems. The new salary includes the standard 3.95 percent raise applied to the approximately $109,000 salary he started with in August.
On the basis that Palmer had not served in the position for a full year, Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava moved an amendment to the resolution to eliminate the raise.
The amendment ultimately failed, however, as multiple supervisors spoke in strong support of Palmer and argued that denying the raise would make an unfair example.
"I think we've established a precedent in the past, unfortunately, for these kind of raises," said North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, noting that any salary freeze should have been brought up initially with Palmer. "Unfortunately we've brought it upon ourselves."
"I'm not saying that any of these people are overpaid, but I'm not going to support this [raise] because of the economic times," said Scozzafava, citing a rise in local job cuts. "I just cannot sit here and represent my constituency and vote the 3.95 percent increases when they're feeling their own pain."
Scozzafava would later propose to amend yet another resolution that outlined specific 2009 salaries for all non-union county employees, including 3.95 percent raises for each.
He specifically requested the salary for the emergency services director to remain the same in light of emergency services deputy Donald Jaquish provisionally taking over the position following the retirement of Ray Thatcher just a few weeks ago. The board voted in favor of that proposal, keeping the salary for that position at its 2008 level of just under $71,000.
Elizabethtown Superisor Noel Merrihew went further, proposing an amendment that would remove raises for all positions listed in the resolution.
Essex Supervisor Ron Jackson was the first to speak against the proposal, noting that some union employees could end up making more than their supervisors if management positions weren't given the same 3.95 percent raise.
"We need to look at where we can cut positions, not cut everybody's salary...," said Westport Supervisor Dan Connell. "I know these salaries look large to many people, but if you look at what we're asking for qualifications of the people receiving these salaries, that's the salary we need to pay."
"If we were raising property taxes, I might feel differently about this...," said Wilmington Supervisor Randy Preston. "As long as we have a zero percent property tax increase, I'm going to support these raises."
According to County Manager Daniel Palmer, freezing department head salaries would only reduce spending by about $79,000, and the tax levy would remain the same as the raises were already written into the county budget for 2009.
"Raises aren't just about the money," said Palmer, "it's recognition that you did your job well."
Merrihew noted that freezing the salaries of all non-union employees may cut spending by much more, however.
"With all that's happening in Albany, we are going to shoulder a lot more than we shouldered last year," said Merrihew, "and the people that are paying our salaries and their salaries are going to shoulder a lot of it."
Scozzafava said that although cutting out the raises would not affect the tax levy, it would add to the county's fund balance. Ticonderoga Supervisor Robert Dedrick also spoke in favor of freezing the salaries in light of the current recession.
The amendment failed as Scozzafava, Dedrick, and Merrihew were the only supervisors to vote in favor of it, though their weighted votes represented 844 of the 1422 needed to pass.