Officials embrace pay cap

Ask unions to join in skipping raises

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2009
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A movement is growing in the region for public employees to freeze their salaries in the coming fiscal year to preserve as many jobs as possible amid tight government budgets and a dismal economy.

Officials in Franklin, Milford, and Holliston have offered to forgo raises to help close ballooning deficits as tax revenue and state aid to communities plummet. In some cases, administrators are hoping that unionized employees will follow suit.

But unions - particularly those representing school teachers, the largest group of municipal workers in most communities - might not be so quick to follow.

Last week, Newton's school superintendent presented a budget that would freeze salaries for all school employees, including himself. This came after the mayor said he would seek a similar freeze on the municipal side.

In Franklin, 51 school administrators announced last week that they would give up their cost-of-living increases for fiscal year 2010, saving the schools about $125,000, or two full-time teaching positions, said School Committee chairman Jeffrey Roy.

"People have grown tired of seeing repeated cuts to the schools," Roy said. "I think it set a really good tone for us going into the budget season."

Also, Town Clerk Deborah Pellegri and Franklin's treasurer and tax collector, James Dacey, say that they would freeze their salaries for the year starting July 1 if unionized town employees would do the same.

"Because we're longtime Franklin residents, we love our community and want to do something to help save these positions and keep everything status quo," Pellegri said. "We're challenging other employees to put a freeze on their salaries for the coming year. We're optimistic that they'll come forward."

But unions seem unlikely to forgo their contracted cost-of-living salary increases at this time, said Chandler Creedon Jr., president of the Franklin Education Association and a psychologist at Horace Mann Middle School.

"The hard part is that teachers tend to give up a lot because they tend to be the biggest group of employees and people say, 'You should sacrifice some more,' " Creedon said. "But how far can you sacrifice before it doesn't make sense to even be employed?"

Salary freeze proposals are on the table throughout the region, particularly in the schools.

In Newton, Superintendent Jeffrey Young proposed a $164.1 million budget last week that assumes a salary freeze for school employees. Young, one of the highest-paid superintendents in the area, earned $247,870 last year.

In Milford, Superintendent Bob Tremblay led the way on a pay freeze for 18 administrative employees. The move will save the district $55,000 next year, or roughly the equivalent of a teacher and a teaching assistant, he said.

"In an effort to lead by example, I decided if I could mitigate some staff losses, I would forgo my salary increase," he said.

As for whether unionized school employees might accept freezes as well, "it's hard to know. . . . I imagine it will be discussed," Tremblay said.

In Holliston, Town Administrator Paul LeBeau initiated his own salary freeze, which amounts to $3,146 in savings for the town.

Selectmen authorized the move, he said, provided that, should additional funds become available, they would restore his scheduled 3 percent increase. LeBeau makes $104,852 annually.

Following suit, three Holliston Public Library employees, including the director, have offered to take one-week unpaid absences; the town clerk and treasurer/collector have both offered to forgo $1,000 annual certification stipends; and staff in the treasurer/collector's office have offered to go without stipends of $500, LeBeau said.

In Franklin, the school budget needs every extra dollar it can get, officials say.

Rising fixed costs in areas such as healthcare insurance have left the district $3 million short of offering the same level of services next year as it now offers.

The current deficit is the equivalent of 60 teaching positions, Roy said.

Overall, the town is facing a potential shortfall of $4.5 million. Town Administrator Jeffrey Nutting sat down with union representatives Wednesday in an effort to find some common ground.

The contract for Franklin teachers would give them a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase next year.

Creedon, head of the Franklin Education Association, said he will bring together its five unions in the coming week to discuss their options.

"People want to be sensitive to the fact that this is a really difficult economic time, but how far do you go?" he said.

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