Waterford finance board starts to ask for town wage freeze - and then it doesn't

Waterford - The Board of Finance voted 4-2 Monday night to ask all town employees to work without a raise during the 2011-12 budget year, but that strategy to cut spending was foiled when a board member had second thoughts later in the evening.

Board member G. Brian Vachris initially voted for a plan proposed by J.W. "Bill" Sheehan that called for budget cuts equal to the amount a wage freeze would save the town.

According to Sheehan's calculations, maintaining town employee salaries at current levels would save $200,000 in the proposed $74.4 million spending plan.

But when the time came to vote on individual department budgets Monday night, Vachris balked, saying that the board lacked the constitutional authority to break a contract with the unions.

And because one board member was absent, votes that would have cut budgets for salaries in the town clerk's office and police department deadlocked at 3-3 and did not pass, effectively scuttling Sheehan's proposal.

Vachris' vacillation on Sheehan's plan has also sparked confusion in Town Hall.

"It sends a mixed message," First Selectman Daniel Steward said Tuesday. "It's caused an awful lot of concern."

Steward said if the finance board follows through on its plan, he would not start concession talks with unions until after a final vote on the budget, scheduled for March 30.

Sheehan said Tuesday that his plan, which would save each taxpayer in Waterford $3.60 next year, is "in a way symbolic" and an acknowledgement that the town is mirroring the meager raises and job losses endured in the private sector since the economic collapse in 2008.

Sheehan's plan would also give the finance board a de facto say in mitigating labor costs, the lack of which has annoyed some members for years.

"It's the only lever the Board of Finance has to force control of personnel costs," Sheehan said.

The Board of Education has asked the six school unions for wage freezes.

Sheehan said that in lieu of salary cuts, he would not rule out cuts to programs and services, as the board proceeds through budget hearings.

"Right now, taxpayers will not stand for a tax increase," he said.

Taxes would rise roughly 6 percent next year if the budget is not cut.

Vachris said Tuesday that he would consider each town department budget as it comes before the board.

"In essence, if there is room for cuts, I will vote for cuts," Vachris said. "If there is not room, I'll vote against cuts."

s.chupaska@theday.com

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