Kingston passes budget with raises for city employees amidst scrutiny

It wasn’t easy, but Kingston city government has passed a 2022 operating budget of $46.7 million. By an eight-to-one vote, the Common Council on December 7 approved an amended version of Mayor Steve Noble’s proposed budget. There will be a token decrease in taxes for property taxpayers, paid for by the dramatic rise in real-estate values and expected largesse from the state and federal governments. 

Spending by city government will increase from the 2021 adopted budget document by $3.6 million, or more than eight percent. The tax burden the average resident of Kingston carries has increased.

After a restive Common Council had done its budgetary trimming, at least 19 new full-time positions remained added to the city payrolls, close to 42 percent of the new payroll total, or $297,190, is covered by grants. 

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If the property values stop rising, then the grant money becomes more important. And if grant monies start to dry up, one can expect property-tax rates to start to rise. 

For now, those scenarios are distant. The City of Kingston is flush with funds. 

Of symbolic significance was the removal from the budget of a new full-time position of chief of staff for the mayor. A vote to reduce the raise Noble had budgeted for himself from $10,000 to $5000 failed by a single vote, Against the change were alderpersons Doug Koop, Don Tallerman, Tony Davis, Patrick O’Reilly and Michele Hirsch. In favor of a reduction of the raise were Jeffrey Ventura Morell, Rennie Scott-Childress, Rita Worthington and Steve Schabot.

The nine-member Common Council will have four new members in 2022. Retiring at the end of this year are Koop, Ventura Morell, Tallerman and O’Reilly. 

In politics, the foreplay is often more interesting than the final action. On this occasion, the main subject of contention about the budget was not roses but raises.

Last week’s budget meeting of Kingston’s Finance and Audit Committee prior to the final vote the next evening featured a cross-examination of mayor Noble, with the most contentious issue being how to characterize Noble’s interaction with the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) prior to his submission of his recommended city budget for 2022.

In his telling of events, Noble repeatedly took pains to substitute the word “discussion” for “negotiation.” The difference between the two words was apparently one of utmost significance.

Committee chair Rennie Scott-Childress started the ball rolling by asking the mayor whether he had taken part in the last collective bargaining between the city and the union. Noble explained that he had recused himself from the bargaining process the last time because his significant other was a city employee and a member of the union as well. It was the city comptroller, John Tuey, who had spearheaded those efforts.   

What was different this time?

“So you just said you had a whole bunch of discussions with labor relations,” said Scott-Childress, “so I wonder do you still stand by your November 6 testimony statements that there were no negotiations with the union before you proposed this plan?”

“We are still not and have not had formal negotiations prior to this document being created, until this MOA,” responded the mayor. “All of the discussions were just that, discussions cleared by all of our attorneys here in city government, including our labor-relations attorney.”

Mayor Noble explained that he had come to terms on an MOA, or Memorandum of Agreement, basically a non-binding understanding with the union, which would amend the previously expired CSEA contract to allow a new salary schedule. The agreement would raise base wages for all the city’s CSEA workers, his spouse excluded.

Both schedules contain various pay designations, known as steps and grades, which the worker can use to climb up like the rungs of a ladder, higher and higher to better pay, and eventually to the ultimate rung, pension and retirement.

Labor-relations specialist for the union Howard Baul was in attendance to explain the practical impact of the old pay schedule upon the rank-and-file. “I mean, if you look at the schedule you know you could get a four-grade promotion and not even bring home six dollars more a week,” said Baul. “You could go from grade one all the way up to grade eight, and the difference in salary is disgusting. You’re talking pennies.” 

Among other changes, the mayor’s compact with the union reduced the current system of 18 grades down to seven.

Scott-Childress continued to dog the mayor’s heels, attempting to establish whether the comptroller, the head of civil service, or any other department head had been involved in the discussions up to the point where the concept was presented to the comptroller to include in the budget.

None had been.

It also came to light that the language of the agreement had been written by the CSEA. The language had been drafted in October by Howard Baul.

“It wasn’t a traditional negotiation where, you know, committees would sit down at a table and exchange proposals,” explained Baul. “There was discussion back and forth between CSEA and the city regarding this particular memorandum of agreement. Now, I drafted the memorandum of agreement.” 

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Scott-Childress pointed out that the MOA has yet to be looked over by the city’s labor lawyer.

In spite of it all, the mayor seemed unfazed.

“For us, for the CSEA and the city admin to write MOAs together and to be able to sign MOAs, again this is all within my job purview as the mayor, to be able to negotiate and to sign agreements,” Noble said. “I feel confident that this is a good agreement for the city, I feel confident this is a good agreement for the worker, I feel confident this is the right thing to do if we want to be able to retain and recruit workers.”

Alderwoman Michele Hirsch spoke up in the mayor’s defense. “I’d like to commend the mayor for taking this initiative to restructure the salaries what could be a potentially very bad situation for the City of Kingston in providing services to our community,” she said. “We’ve heard quite a bit of testimony in the last few days from community members that really are having uh trouble affording to live here in our city and this also is a situation for our own CSEA workers. The cost of living has gone up greatly, and we need to make sure that we are providing for the people that provide for the City of Kingston.

Everyone who spoke on the record expressed their unflagging desire to raise the pay of the rank-and-file. That Kingston city workers were underpaid seemed a matter of general agreement.