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Proposed Bethlehem budget to cover wage increases

A public hearing on the tentative 2008 Bethlehem budget is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 6:15 p.m. in town hall. The $37.6 million plan increases taxes 2.5 percent while increasing expenditures by $1.38 million.

The proposed budget also calls for across-the-board cost-of-living salary increases for all 249 town employees.

Salary and fringe benefits make up the largest portion of the town budget, representing 54 percent of the overall expenditures. The 2007 Bethlehem fiscal plan appropriated almost $19.6 million for salaries and benefits. The proposed 2008 town budget calls for about $20.46 million in salary and benefits, an increase of $869,000.

Town Comptroller Judith Kehoe said that although cost-of-living adjustment increases amount to 3 percent across-the-board, fringe benefits increase that figure to 4.4 percent. Contract negotiations are currently taking place with the employees of Bethlehem's Police Department and telecommunications department. Although 3 percent has been budgeted, the salary increase for the police and 9-1-1 employees could be larger.

It would have been an unprecedented occurrence not to give employees cost-of-living adjustments, said town board member Kyle Kotary, who believes the budget should not be balanced on the backs of employees.

"They too are residents with families, and their costs are going up as well," Kotary added.

An $84,000 increase for software and technology upgrades are in store for the recreation department. The software will allow town residents to register for recreation programs online.

"I am focused on ways to automate to increase service and reduce costs," said Supervisor Jack Cunningham, who is in charge of his first budget as town supervisor.

There were other department requests that were turned down by the board, including one for a full-time person in the town's data-processing department. Town board member Sam Messina said making budget decisions like that one is often a balancing act.

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