May 4—WATERTOWN — Proposed $3,000 annual salary increases for mayor and City Council have been taken out of the city's 2023-24 budget.
During council's first budget session, the four council members on Thursday agreed to forego the salary increases that Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith proposed in the city's $54,524,373 financial package.
Councilman Cliff G. Olney III said it wasn't the right political climate for them to receive pay hikes with simmering debate continuing over the city's recent $3.4 million purchase of the former Watertown Golf Club at Thompson Park.
He also said it wasn't a good idea during an election year.
"Essentially, it would be patting ourselves on the back," he said in bringing up a discussion to make the budget cuts.
The other three council members agreed to remove the increases, which would have gone into effect on Jan. 1.
"I don't see the reason for the raise," Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo Pierce said.
Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero suggested waiting for the new council to decide to make any pay increases next year.
Mayor Smith made a point that, while he proposed the increases it would not pertain to him because he's not running for reelection.
With the new budget beginning July 1, the council's decision means $7,500 will be coming out of the proposed budget that carries a 1.99% tax rate increase.
The mayoral position pays $17,753 a year, while council members receive $13,314. The last time they received increases were in 2015.
Council members also agreed to take a deputy comptroller position out of the spending package that was part of this year's budget, but never filled.
Comptroller James E. Mills told council members he doesn't believe the position is needed for his department, stressing he's worried about adding a position that could come under job cuts when the city loses a multimillion dollar contract to sell hydroelectric to National Grid when the contract comes to an end in 2030.
But Councilman Olney contended that the city should have a deputy comptroller for the times when Mr. Mills is not available or no longer with the city.
Eliminating the position will save the city $96,000 in annual salary and benefits.
During a lengthy discussion, council members also talked about two engineering positions that were never filled after they were put in this year's budget.
After learning about the two vacant engineering positions, Councilman Olney wondered why they weren't filled and whether someone was deliberately keeping them vacant for political reasons.
"It has the same narrative," he said, questioning what was going on with the vacant positions. "What are we going to do?"
City Engineer Michael Delaney said the positions in his department weren't filled because only two people applied. He's hopeful that a current applicant will end up filling one of them.
When the city received about $22 million in federal funding last year, council members decided to create 22 positions, including the two engineers and deputy comptroller.
Now a year later, the city still has to fill numerous positions.
The police department's vacancy rate is now about 10. There are six vacancies in the water department, five in public works and one each in internet technology (IT) and geographic information system (GIS).
During Thursday's nearly two-hour budget session, council members quickly went through discussions about the city assessor, comptroller, city clerk, engineering, code enforcement, IT, purchasing, city manager, mayor and council budgets.
They plan to discuss the public works, water/sewer/hydro and capital budgets from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday.
The 1.99% tax rate increase would mean an $8.7871 per $1,000 of assessed valuation will go to $8.9618. For a property assessed at $100,000, taxes would increase from $878.71 to $896.81, or $18.10.
The tax levy would increase $335,000, or 3.43%.