Milton budget coming down to 11th hourOfficials search for money for employee raises
Milton — In an effort to find more money in the budget for employee raises and capital improvements, Milton Town Council continues to break down the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget.
Council members spent nearly two and a half hours at their Sept. 9 meeting debating the importance and need of specific line items in the budget. Entering the meeting, the proposed budget had a nearly $25,000 surplus. However, wage increases for new police department recruits had not yet been figured into the budget, and council did not make a final decision on whether to increase a new officer's salary. Council will meet again at 6:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 15, to continue budget work.
"Taxes and fees are our sources of revenue. If we can't find [money] anywhere else, then we need to make cuts in expenditures to make up the difference,” said Councilman John Collier. “That's pretty much the bottom line here. As tough as it may seem, sometimes you have to make ugly decisions.”
Milton's budget year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30. Mayor Marion Jones said the objective is to make Milton's police department more competitive with other agencies in Sussex County, which would hopefully increase officer retention.
In July, Milton lost three officers to other Sussex departments. Police Chief William Phillips said in previous meetings that Milton continues to offer one of the lowest starting salaries for new recruits in the county.
The town's personnel committee met Sept. 6 to discuss new recruit salaries and recommended that council increase wages from $14.86 per hour to an hourly rate of $17 – a nearly $4,500 per year increase. The committee also suggested adjusting the rate structure of the entire police department. The addition to the budget of the projected police salaries is more than $39,000, not including the estimated $35,000 salary of at least one additional officer.
“This is a rather hefty bump for the officers and it's all predicated on the starting salary [of a new recruit],” Jones said. “When it plays out, it becomes quite significant.”
The personnel committee also recommended a raise of up to 3 percent for all town employees, determined through performance evaluations.
To find space in the budget for at least one additional officer, council started making cuts. Town-issued cell phones will no longer be distributed to all police officers and public works employees, cutting the number of phones by seven. Councilman John Booros estimated the phones cost the town about $1,100 per phone annually.
The town is considering an auction to sell off unused town vehicles, equipment and metal, which could fetch a significant windfall. Officials are also looking into the possibility of eliminating the town's take-home car policy.
“I do not quite understand how it is Milton's responsibility to supply all these extras, and Milton's benefits sheets are really not reflecting this,” Jones said. “Nothing is off the table. If we're looking for money, we need to look hard for money, unpopular as it may be.”
Councilman Michael Coté said eliminating cell phones and take-home cars could be viewed negatively by the town's employees.
“If retention is the goal, if you give something on one hand and take something away on the other hand [it could be] perceived as the gain isn't [much],” he said.
Phillips was also open to the idea of decreasing the size of his force from nine officers to eight. The proposition ignited a debate on whether the town could adequately maintain public safety.
"In my view, the public safety professional [the chief] needs to take a position and make a recommendation on the basis of public safety, not on the basis of a budget and not on a basis of a negotiation with the mayor,” said resident Sam Garde. “If eight will do it, that's great for all of us. If it won't, we have to find a way to support nine.”
Phillips did not offer a recommendation by the end of the budget discussion, saying he would comply with whatever the council decided.
With time running out before the beginning of the next fiscal year, council will reconvene to continue budget discussions Sept. 15 at the Milton Fire Department. To view a copy of the proposed budget, go to milton.delaware.gov.