AMESBURY — Four new collectively bargained contracts with the city’s public employees were approved by the City Council during last night’s meeting, along with a new Affordable Housing Trust.
The three-year contracts were negotiated earlier this year by Mayor Thatcher Kezer and the union leaders representing Amesbury’s police, firefighters, Department of Public Works employees and administrative workers. The contracts include pay raises for public workers averaging 2 percent per year, along with concessions that Kezer argues will save the city money in the long run.
The council voted 8-1 to approve each of the contracts, with the exception of the DPW contract, which passed 7-1 after Councilor Derek Kimball recused himself from the vote. The vote will allow $120,400 to be appropriated to this year’s budget to fund the first year of the agreement. Councilor Donna McClure was the lone dissenting vote in each case.
Throughout the evening, much of the discussion among the councilors focused on the pay raises and the potential impact that the raises could have on taxpayers. McClure was vocal in her opposition to the pay raises, saying that the council needed to take a stand and commit itself to cutting costs and lowering taxes.
“I’m just not sure how much longer we’re going to sit here and say how much longer,” McClure said. “I think there needs to be some kind of understanding that the people we’re supposed to be representing are on the tipping point.”
Kezer has defended the agreements by highlighting earlier agreements reached with the unions regarding restructured health insurance deals that placed more of the costs on workers. As a result of those agreements, Kezer said the city would end up with a net savings of $251,006 this year even after adding the costs of the new agreements.
“The question that the councilors kept asking, ‘when is this going to stop, what can we do about it,’ well the whole structure of this agreement, when you calculate the increase in the contracts and the savings we got back from health insurance, for every dollar we’re paying in the contract increase, we’re getting $2.38 back in savings,” Kezer said. “That’s our approach of how we’re dealing with the increase in costs — we’re generating savings on the whole deal.”
McClure proposed an amendment to the agreements stipulating that they be funded by the existing budget, but the amendment was defeated 6-3, with the majority arguing that there was no room for any cuts in the existing budget to make room for the agreements.
After that, the council discussed the merits of the agreements and ultimately voted in favor of all four contracts, preferring the deal on the table to the alternative possibility of sending the deal back for renegotiation and getting back a worse deal in the end.
“I’m pleased that they ultimately realized the benefit that by negotiating these contracts in conjunction with negotiating savings in health insurance, the net result is a benefit to the taxpayers,” Kezer said after the vote. “That’s how Amesbury has been able to flatten out our costs of doing business, by negotiating these types of arrangements where the net result is ultimately a savings.”
“We’re pleased they got resolved,” said police Chief Mark Gagnon. “I think the union stepped up in good faith and made a big decision to do the health insurance change before they even knew what they were getting for a contract, they had a lot of trust in the administration of the town and they made that decision upfront knowing they could trust the mayor’s decision to negotiate a fair deal, and I think they got a fair deal.”
Prior to the discussion on the union contracts, the council resolved the issues surrounding the prospective Affordable Housing Trust, which was discussed at length at last month’s meeting. Previously, supporters had argued that it could allow low-income Amesbury residents a chance to enter the housing market, while objectors argued that it could impose a greater tax burden on residents.
In order to alleviate the concerns of the opposed councilors, Councilor Bob Lavoie proposed two amendments to the original bill. One was a stipulation that affordable housing trustees could not be paid, which was a concern raised by Councilor Jim Kelcourse, and the other was a 10-year sunset clause that would allow the City Council the ability to either renew or dissolve the trust in 10 years, depending on how it works out.
Both the amendments and the bill were unanimously approved.
According to the language in the bill, the Affordable Housing Trust will serve as a vehicle for Amesbury to better plan for, fund and develop affordable housing to benefit low- and moderate-income households.
Joe Fahey, Amesbury’s community and economic development director, also argued last month that the trust would serve as a vehicle to help bring Amesbury closer to the 10 percent Chapter 40B threshold. Currently, Amesbury’s affordable housing levels are at approximately 7.8 percent, under the 10 percent Chapter 40B threshold. That means a developer who comes to Amesbury can bypass zoning and wetlands regulations to build affordable housing units.
Also discussed at the meeting were two vacancies on town boards and commissions. The council accepted the resignation of Johanna Hoyt Kimball from the Board of Library Trustees and opened the space up for a vacancy. Any resident interested in the position is encouraged to apply at the town clerk’s office.
The other vacancy was on the Ordinance Committee. The committee had two applicants, Sheila Casey and Jim Thieverge, and after hearing both speak briefly during the meeting, the councilors voted 6-3 in favor of Casey.