, Newburyport, MA

June 29, 2013

Council nixes pay raises

Councilors blast critics for tying pay raise to school spending

By Kelly Burch

---- — AMESBURY — The City Council voted unanimously last night to table the issue of pay raises for the council and the mayor, erasing the possibility of a raise, and ending a tumultuous political week in town.

“Essentially, this is a no vote,” said Councilor Allen Neale. “This will end any possibility of a vote.”

Councilors were poised to raise their own salaries from $3,000 to $5,200, the council president’s salary from $4,500 to $6,500 and the mayor’s salary from $80,000 to $90,000. The raises would have taken effect next January, after the fall election and immediately after the mayor and council had taken office.

The city charter dictates that any proposal to change the salaries of the council or the mayor must be voted on within the first 18 months of the term. A discussion that has been tabled cannot be brought up for six months, which will be after the 18-month mark. Because of this, pay raises cannot be proposed again during this council’s term.

The pay proposal met fierce opposition from Amesbury residents after the issue was coupled with layoffs in the school system - something that some councilors had an issue with.

“I don’t understand the link,” said Councilor Derek Kimball. “They are two separate issues.”

Councilor Joseph McMilleon, who was opposed to the pay increase, agreed. “I don’t believe it should be connected to the school situation at all,” he said. “It is not a valid comparison.”

Last week the council voted to approve a school budget for next school year that increases spending by about $900,000. However it was about $600,000 less than the schools needed to keep all programs and staff at current levels. As a result, earlier this week, the School Committee approved several cuts to next year’s budget, which included the layoff of several school staff and significant increases in fees charged to parents for athletics and busing.

Many residents had juxtaposed the pay raise issue against the school funding, something Councilor Neale found when he spoke to constituents.

“If perception becomes widespread it is the reality,” he said, noting that he thought that the pay raise was fair, because the council had only passed one pay raise in 16 years. However, he said that he was willing to listen to the townspeople. “The council has come to recognize the widely held perception, and I have withdrawn my support for this measure.”

Councilor Donna McClure, the most vocal opponent of the pay raises, said that the outrage could not be blamed on public opinion alone.

“I don’t see this as a perception problem, I see it as a problem,” she told the council. “We have a spending problem that the council doesn’t recognize and hasn’t come to terms with. The reality is we have a huge budget, we have 40 percent less value in our homes, and we are trying to make it work.”

Councilors on both sides of the issues said that they had been swayed by public opinion, especially as they spoke to residents at Amesbury Days, which began Thursday.

“We all know how ambitiously people have spoken up about this, and how erroneously,” said Councilor Robert Lavoie. “We heard first from what I would call the classic naysayers, and we then heard from the school community. Those comments astound most of us.”

Lavoie said that whether it is objectively true or not, the fact remains that many people now see the pay raises in direct conflict with the school budget.

“A salary increase is not critical enough to go through the experience of tearing the community apart,” he said. “This is where we are.”

Council President Anne Ferguson said that she initiated the pay raises herself, because she felt that they were fair.

“I was not motivated by hate of the schools, or hatred for Amesbury,” she said. However, she said that the issue had been surrounded by “a lot of negative bullying.”

“I do not appreciate that we have been linked as non-supporters of the schools,” Ferguson said. “That is not true. Those uninformed comments on blogs and emails are bullying.”

Councilor McClure disagreed. “I don’t think bullying comes into it,” she said after the meeting. “This is the legislative process. It is not bullying because you lost.”

Although she voted to table the issue, Ferguson stood by her initial actions.

“The issue of a pay raise is still there, and is valid,” she said, noting that she would not be affected by any future raise.

The meeting drew a few spectators. After the vote, one Amesbury resident, who did not want to give her name, said she was happy to see the issue behind her.

“We heard what we wanted to hear,” she said. “We are against spending any more money anywhere.”