UPDATED: Mayor Scrima Calls for 'Savings' in Employee Salaries, Benefits
Mayor Jeff Scrima says employee wages and benefits are "the elephant in the room" during 2013 budget process. Union contracts expire in December, and city employees will be subject to Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair law.
This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday with a clarification about Waukesha Water Utility benefits.
Employee wages and benefits are being eyed by Mayor Jeff Scrima as he looks for the 2013 budget to “provide our families with tax relief.”
The mayor told the Finance Committee on Tuesday he wants to have a “candid” discussion about the government employees’ salaries and benefits.
“The employee contracts are expiring at the end of this year,” Scrima said Tuesday night. “There is great opportunity for savings in the area of salary increases, health care packages and retirement packages. This is the topic that nobody wants to talk about. It is the elephant in the room. That is where the majority of the savings is.”
It’s not the first time Scrima has eyed employee salaries during budget talks. In efforts to not increase taxes during the 2012 budget, when his proposal to take garbage collection off the tax roll by adding a fee was rejected by aldermen, he strongly suggested that budget reductions be made by voluntary concessions via the threat of employee layoffs.
The city employee contracts expire at the end of 2012, but the new round of employee contracts could be vastly different from previous years. Employee unions, with the exception of police and fire employees, will be required to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pension and 12 percent of their health care premiums.
Status of other city employees
Police and fire employee unions have indicated they want to begin contract negotiations soon, according to Interim City Administrator Steve Crandell. Other employee unions are limited to negotiating salary under the new budget repair law.
“There is dialogue that is taking place,” Crandell told the Finance Committee.
Non-union employees have been paying for the health care and retirement benefits for a more than a year. Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair law allowed municipalities to require the employee contributions.
Waukesha Water Utility employees, although not affecting the tax levy, are also subject to the conditions of the budget repair legislation. Following the law changes, the water utility employee union disbanded. Non-union employees were affected in August 2011 and former union employees began to contribute toward retirement benefits when the union decertified in January, according to Waukesha Water Utility General Manager Dan Duchniak.
Duchniak clarified Wednesday morning that the commission already implemented changes in benefit packages, including increased insurance deductibles, increased co-pays, "so that benefits were more in line with the private sector," Duchniak said.
The water utility's insurance premiums "are significantly less than those of city employees and even those of state employees," he said in an e-mail to Patch.
“The impact of Act 10 (budget repair legislation) is still to be finalized with police and fire unions, other union employees and pension rates,” Crandell said in a memo to department directors in June.
Same level of service, hold line on taxes
Department directors have submitted the 2013 budget requests to Crandell and the Finance Department. Crandell will review budget requests before submitting the budget proposal to the Finance Committee for review.
Crandell told department directors in June that the budget will be similar to 2012, including salaries and benefits. The only way department heads can justify increases is by finding offsetting revenues. Crandell noted state law allows the city to increase the tax levy no more than the value of new construction in 2012.
“Since we don’t know the new construction for 2012, we cannot predict the impact on the 2012 budget at this point in time,” Crandell said.
The 2013 budget should keep taxes to a minimum while maintaining levels of service in the city, said a group of aldermen told Scrima Tuesday night.
But they also told the mayor that there’s a lot of work to be done on the budget. The aldermen want to review the proposed budget, state aid and proposed reductions before making any decisions.
“There are a lot of variables that we do not know yet,” Alderman John Kalblinger said.
Alderman Joe Pieper, who chairs the Finance Committee, said he’s committed to maintaining city streets and providing for the needs of the police and fire departments. But Pieper also wants to do it in a way that is “cost effective and respective of the tax dollars.”
“As we begin the budget process … I want to continue to ask all of our constituents — my constituents, the constituents of every alderman – to reach out to your alderman and let them know what might be important to you,” Pieper said.
One call for employee raises
Alderman Andy Reiland described the recession-driven budget process in 2012 as a “learning process."
“The economy remains fragile … and many in Waukesha are still concerned with making ends meet, with many living paycheck to paycheck,” Reiland said. “They expect us to run this city in a way that is respectful of their financial situation. Being mindful of this, I believe that our department heads can identify opportunities within the budget to present a flat 2013 plan that allows for needed improvement/increases, which are offset by identified efficiencies resulting in cost savings.
“However, we need to be very careful not to reduce any level of service that the citizens of Waukesha have identified as important to their health and well being. So we have some challenges again this year. I am confident that our city department heads will be aggressive in looking for ways to improve processes that allocate the taxpayer funds in the most cost effective manner.”
Reiland said he believes past practice of holding open vacant positions has worked well, and he’s “not opposed” to reviewing that practice again in the 2013 budget. He also noted that there is not enough information yet about salaries and benefits, state aid and training requirements. With the finding of “efficiencies” in departments, Reiland said he believes the city can give raises to its employees in 2013. The staff “deserves an increase,” he said.
Alderman Rick Hastings, who was unable to attend the meeting, said in a written statement to the committee that his goal is for a zero percent tax increase while maintaining the same level of services.
“That being said, it would delight me to add additional squad cars to patrol the streets as long as savings could be realized other places to offset the cost,” Hastings wrote in his statement, which was read to the committee by Pieper. “I state this as the desire for a greater police presence is also on the mind of many of my constituents. In the end the citizens want a well-run, safe community to live and raise their children and ultimately that is my goal.”
Scrima, when asked about his goal for the 2013 budget, mentioned that Waukesha Water Utility customers face a 27 percent increase to the water portion of the utility’s bills. There are “feelings of uncertainty in our community,” Scrima said.
“City spending should be in line with what our taxpaying families are experiencing. … We ought to provide our families with tax relief, which means saving families money,” Scrima said.