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Money talks; Worcester budget: Hard times or fat city?

COLUMN: In our opinion

While Worcester city councilors and the administration tried to put a positive spin on their huge raises, it is hard to gainsay the perplexity of residents who struggle to make ends meet while tax bills and fees continue to climb.

Wasn't it just a week or two ago that City Manager Michael V. O'Brien issued a budget message emphasizing the need for further belt-tightening and efficiencies in the face of escalating costs, slowing revenues and increased demand for services?

Yet, on Tuesday councilors voted, with neither discussion nor roll call, a $324,000 salary package that nearly doubles their own stipends. That's $34,000 for the part-time mayor and $29,000 for the 10 part-time councilors - more than many of their constituents earn for full-time work.

Since the stipend for the School Committee is set at 50 percent of that of the councilors, that boards' members also will see their stipends nearly double, to $14,500.

The voice vote was just the latest political legerdemain regarding the windfall. Last year, councilors, uncertain of their legal ground and fearing the wrath of voters in an election year, voted to "suspend" the raise a year. Given that too-clever bit of sleight of hand, Mayor Konstantina B. Lukes' alibi that residents would have voted the incumbents out of office were they disturbed by the raises rings hollow, indeed.

Residents also may be perplexed by raises, from 10 percent to 25 percent, in the city's executive offices - in a budget plan calling for 3.44 percent growth overall.

Mr. O'Brien made a plausible argument for some of the raises, such as those intended to equalize pay for similar positions. Far-fetched, however, are comparisons to the pay scales of Cambridge and Boston, hardly models of lean government, or Springfield, driven by fiscal ineptness to the brink of bankruptcy.

Finally, there's the issue of perception. In a year in which city employees are being asked to be more efficient, help contain costs and do more with less and in which residents are being asked to lower their expectations for services, huge boosts in city stipends and salaries sound a jarring note.
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Title Annotation:EDITORIAL
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 16, 2008
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