Wages up for debate in Knox

Enterprise file photo — H. Rose Schneider
Cold-weather work, says Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, is one of the reason Knox transfer station workers wages should increase. At the October town board meeting,Pokorny suggested increasing transfer station workers’ wages by 7-percent. The drafted 2018 budget includes a 2-percent raise for both highway and transfer station employees.

KNOX — While developing next year’s $2 million town budget, the Knox Town Board delved into a discussion of whether or not to exchange a 2-percent tax decrease, a matter of a few dollars for the average taxpayer in Knox, for a higher raise for transfer-station and possibly highway workers.

Some at the Oct. 10 meeting questioned the motives of the increase, which had been suggested by Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, who is running against the current supervisor, Vasilios Lefkaditis. Lefkaditis asserted that it would leave the town in the midst of a “wage war” between transfer station and highway workers.

The town board had made a motion to approve the tentative budget, drafted by Lefkaditis, as a preliminary budget, when Pokorny asked to change the proposed 2-percent raise to a 7-percent wage increase.

The town employs three part-time workers and one alternate at the transfer station and each currently make $13.23 an hour, according to the town’s last reorganizational meeting minutes; a 2-percent increase would bring this to $13.62 an hour and a seven-percent increase would make it $14.16 an hour, or a 93-cent difference.

Lefkaditis said that a 2-percent salary increase had been proposed in the budget for the transfer-station employees, the town bookkeeper, and the registrar of vital statistics, who are all part-time employees; the highway-department employees and the highway superintendent also were proposed to receive a 2-percent raise.

Currently there are six full-time workers at the garage, as well as one recently hired part-time employee who may be promoted once a full-time worker retires, according to the highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury.

In the gallery, Laura Martin Pasquini stated that she felt the transfer-station workers were not deserving of the 2-percent raise.

“I don’t think the guys there are doing a good job,” she said, suggesting that a raise only occurs when there is an election.

Lefkaditis responded that the town has good employees who deserve a raise and, while the town needs to cut down on spending, this budget was well balanced.

“It appropriately awards employees who do a great job, and rewards the taxpayers with a tax break,” he said, referring to a 2-percent tax-levy decrease that was part of the tentative budget.

Knox Assessor Russell Pokorny, the husband of the councilwoman, told The Enterprise that a 2-percent decrease would bring the amount of town taxes down from the current $44 to $40 for a $100,000 property. At the meeting, he added that the average tax bill for Knox residents, which includes school and county as well as town taxes, is $2,000, and, of that, the town tax is about $88, meaning 2-percent of that would be $1.80. The total amount of the cut in the budget is $5,400.

Councilman Earl Barcomb said the increase in wages would also require the employees to increase their responsibilities and tasks at the transfer station.

Pokorny said that, after speaking with the transfer-station employees, she found that they face harsh working conditions, including a lack of running water besides a hand-wash station, working outdoors in a range of temperatures, and handling hazardous substances. She also noted that the workers will repair broken equipment for the town with found items and gather items for residents to reuse.

“And they are the lowest paid employees in the town,” she continued. “I would like to see this budget changed so that we give them a 7-percent raise — ”

“Amy, we know that’s your voter base, please,” interjected Martin Pasquini. She later argued that this was politically motivated, since Pokorny is running for election as town supervisor.

Lefkaditis later said he was concerned that Pokorny had not suggested such an increase in prior years, which Pokorny said was this year because she had spoken directly with the transfer station staff about their work.

A chart pulled up and projected by Lefkaditis at the meeting shows a 3-percent increase in wages for the transfer station workers in 2009, no increase from 2010 to 2012, a 2-percent increase in 2013 and 2015, a 6-percent increase in 2014, and a 3.24-percent increase in 2016.

Pokorny said that her proposed raise would increase the line item from $1,200 to $2,500, and suggested taking this from the buffer of about $10,000 for appropriations for the park improvement project.

“Do you understand that that doesn’t make any money?” asked Lefkaditis. “ … Do you understand what’s happening in the budget?”

Pokorny said that it would mean the funds would not go to the park improvement project. Lefkaditis replied that “wasn’t remotely accurate.” Pokorny then suggested that funding for the celebration line item could be used instead, since it appeared the last fairs in town had made money (see related story).

“There’s no money there, an appropriation is not money … ” said Lefkaditis, saying that Pokorny appeared to be having trouble understanding this concept. “All that tells you is how much money you can spend.”

Travis O'Donnell, a Knox Planning Board member, said from the gallery that he also was having trouble understanding this. Lefkaditis said that appropriations show how much the town is allowed to spend up to, and is balanced by the town revenues and unexpended fund balance.

“But it’s not money coming out of the unexpended fund balance,” he added. He concluded that the appropriations often act as a “buffer” so the town doesn’t overspend.

“That’s not a little buffer; that’s a big buffer,” said O'Donnell. Lefkaditis replied that previous budgets had $600,000 or $700,000 buffers and the town is trying to reduce these amounts, but the town now has one-time charges for items such as new highway equipment that have increased appropriations.

Lefkaditis warned that, with an increase in wages for one department and not others, a “wage war” could start. Salisbury is paid at $56,678 a year, and the six highway workers make between $16.44 and $21.59 an hour; the lowest starting rate for a highway worker is $15.31 an hour, according to the town’s reorganizational meeting minutes.

“I don’t fault anybody a raise; I agree, I think that everybody who works for the town should make more money,” said Salisbury. “The money’s not there; we’ve all known that.”

Salisbury said that his staff works directly with the transfer-station employees, hauling waste away and repairing equipment. But, because the transfer station workers work only 15 hours a week, his workers often find a mess at the transfer station to clean up or are making repairs themselves, taking time away from work at the highway department.

Councilman Dennis Barber said that the new standard operating procedures for the transfer station, which were updated earlier that evening, would take care of this by spelling out what the employees’ roles are.

Barcomb then suggested removing the tax cut, and using the funds instead for raising the salaries of both the highway and transfer-station workers, leaving a flat levy with no increases or decreases from the year prior. Pokorny said the board could look at what would be available to give to the highway and transfer station workers by keeping the levy flat.

“I would like to give my $1.80 back to the guys,” said Barcomb, later in the meeting, to applause from some audience members.

Martin Pasquini and her son, Bill Pasquini, argued against an across-the-board increase to all workers, with Bill Pasquini suggesting that merit-based raises be used instead. In the gallery, Bruce Countryman said that this could risk raises being granted for political favoritism or to the “good ol’ boys” at the garage. Bill Pasquini later noted that a 7-percent increase is a different amount for someone making $20 an hour as opposed to $13 an hour.

Pokorny, Barcomb, and Councilman Dan Hanley said they would support removing the tax cut in order to increase workers’ salaries beyond the 2-percent raise. Barber and Lefkaditis said that they preferred keeping the tax cut and the proposed 2-percent raise.

The board unanimously agreed to approve the tentative budget as the preliminary budget, and to decide on whether to make changes at the following meeting. The board also unanimously approved holding a public budget hearing on Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.

Other business

In addition, the town board also:

— Heard an announcement from Pokorny, the zoning board of appeals liaison, that the zoning board had held a public hearing on and approved the special-use permit application for the new owners of the Knox Country Store; Lefkaditis sold the store he renovated to the Cecunjanin family that owns Fox Creek Market in Berne. Planning Board Chairman Robert Price said that the planning board reviewed some details of the application and suggested adding a crosswalk on Route 156;

— Heard from Lefkaditis that the United States Postal Service is willing to set up an “authorized acceptor” in the Knox Country Store, so that mailboxes could be set up there as well as other amenities offered at a post office;

— Reviewed a charge from the law firm Hodgson Russ, which, at $11,508.33, was double the $5,480 firm had estimated for the town; the board agreed to challenge this charge from the law firm and pay only the original estimate. The law firm had done work to correct a mistake town attorney John Dorfman had made in advising the town to illegally renew a Bond Anticipation Note. Lefkaditis said he would like to have the town attorney on retainer rather than be employed, and to carry malpractice insurance. Dorfman, who had admitted to the mistake in January, defended himself at the October meeting, stating that the town still saved $17,278 by not bonding the BAN in 2014 and taking a higher interest rate. “We benefited from my screw-up,” he said;

— Reviewed a template from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for a Payment In Lieu of Taxes form, and discussed the fact that Albany County and the Guilderland School District still must approve the assessment in order to establish a PILOT for the Borrego Solar array in Knox, which was approved last year; and

— Reviewed a new design proposed for the town seal. At the last town board meeting, Barber had presented two designs for the town seal that he had personally commissioned an artist to design, but both Lefkaditis and Pokorny suggested adding a tin horn and calico mask to the design to commemorate the Anti-Rent Wars. At the Oct. 10 meeting, Pokorny presented a design that included that in lieu of the design of the schoolhouse. The town clerk, Tara Murphy, said residents would be able to vote for a design online, and the board agreed to let residents vote on a design at polling stations on Election Day.

Corrected on Oct. 18, 2017: Travis O'Donnell's last name was corrected, as was the amount of the previous buffer in the town budget.

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