Council considers benefit cuts for elected officials

By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers

TAYLOR — Recently appointed City Treasurer Lynn Cleary said city officials may be in a no-win situation: Fulfill an obligation to present a balanced budget; or cancel retirement benefits promised elected officials by previous administrations.

“I understand that some of these things are going to hurt,” Cleary said. “But if you say no to one thing you have to find something to replace it.”

Cleary, who accepted the treasurer’s responsibilities after city officials wrestled with the appointment for months, previously served as superintendent for Lincoln Consolidated Schools before retiring in June. Last month she took over the treasurer’s office vacated in June 2011 by Wayne Avery.

The first weeks on the job have been a learning curve for Cleary, who said the city has difficult decisions to make. A study session Thursday evening was one of many planned between now and a deadline for preparing a balanced budget.

The second and likely final extension for city officials to submit a deficit reduction plan to the state is April 9. A final regular meeting prior to that deadline Aug. 3, is expected to include debate on how to remove more than $5 million from the budget.

Failure by city administrators to present a plan for eliminating the debt within five years could result in Emergency Financial Management takeover of the city’s administration.

Last week’s regular council meeting featured a proposal to eliminate benefits for part-time and retired elected officials, a move that could save the city $180,000 annually. Mayor Jeffrey Lamarand asked the council to approve a resolution to eliminate non-vested benefits for past elected officials, current part-time elected officials on city council, and future retirees who may have been entitled to the benefits.

“The city is hemorrhaging money and we need to scrape for every nickel to slow the bleeding,” Lamarand said.

While on city council, Lamarand made a similar proposal in 2008 that was voted down. The ordinance was amended in 2009 to eliminate benefits for future members of council elected after 2009; Lamarand was the first full-time official affected by the change, which he supported.

City Council Chair Cheryl Burke, also affected by the 2009 resolution, supported the proposal.

“Most people this affects have another option,” Burke said. “I believe many of them would say they are fortunate to have received these extra benefits this long.”

Not everyone agreed, and a four-hour study session Monday failed to result in a vote of approval during Tuesday’s meeting. Instead, the matter was tabled for further consideration. City Clerk Mary Ann Rilley and Councilman John Delo said that the city made a promise to those who served, and eliminating benefits would diminish the value of elected officials.

“Benefits are a very sensitive issue,” Cleary said. “But one that can be looked at as one piece of the puzzle.”

Cleary said that Thursday’s study session took a long look at possible budget reductions, which combined with new revenue sources could resolve the issue.

As the deadline approaches, city officials will continue to meet, hold study sessions and negotiate with employee unions in hopes of trimming more than $5 million worth of expenses. Consideration of seeking a Headlee amendment override to generate revenue was cancelled, and officials said that cuts, layoffs and service reductions are the only means left for balancing the budget.

“I’m an optimist,” Cleary said. “I think we will come to an agreement and avoid takeover.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at jmitchell@bewickpublications.com.)

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