As the Purcellville Town Council worked to push its Fiscal Year 2023 budget work over the finish line, town administrators pushed for greater protection for the town employees serving the town.
Town Manager David A. Mekarski opened the April 26 discussion by pointing out that the current version of the budget is only a half percent larger than the pre-pandemic spending plan. He praised the staff for helping the town navigate through a period of great austerity.
Councilmembers have held a series of budget discussions in the weeks since Mekarski presented his proposal in mid-March and the debate now centers on whether their job is done, or whether there is more spending to wring out.
Those pushing for more cuts have focused on utility rates and staffing costs.
Councilman Stanley J. Milan Sr. is searching for some way to reduce utility bills that are scheduled to increase gradually with bumps of 3% to 5% annually to prepare for a large jump in debt payments that will hit in 2026—a condition created by a previous refinancing that delayed previously anticipated rate hikes. He said the revenue generated by the town’s newly established nutrient bank partnership should have a greater impact on rates, perhaps being used to pay down debt on the sewer system.
But staff members raised concerns about transferring money from the Water Fund, where the nutrient credits are recorded, to the Sewer Fund, a position that prompted a discussion of whether there is merit in merging the two utility system budgets. However, staff members said the utility system challenges were driven largely by an out-of-balance system in which revenue from utility rates don’t cover the cost of operations and debt service, and there no longer are availability fees coming in from development to help cover shortfalls.
Representatives from the town’s utility consultant, Davenport, are expected to attend next week’s council meeting to discuss alternatives.
Another spending cut target is the proposed 6% cost of living adjustment proposed for the town staff. At next week’s meeting, the council is expecting a more detailed report on the salary breakdown between management and other positions, with some members suggesting pay hikes could be reduced for higher-compensated employees.
Simmering friction between some councilmembers and the staff boiled over during the meeting when Vice Mayor Christopher Bertaut questioned the merits of a relatively small line item that funds a contract providing five years of identification theft legal services to all employees working for the town in 2017 or earlier and their families. That plan was put in place following the town’s management scandal in which the acting town manager hired a human resources consultant who had access to all town employment files despite a previous criminal conviction of fraud.
Protection of up to $1 million per claim seemed excessive, Bertaut said, asking if there were cheaper options.
Mekarski said the service was important to the employees and he would recommend extending the service to seven years. The town is accessing the service by riding a contract secured by a state university, resulting in significant cost savings after a thorough study of available options, Director of Administration Hooper McCann noted.
Police Chief Cynthia McAlister—who had been the victim of identity theft following the management scandal, which also included efforts by the acting town manager and the hired consultant to have her fired—said the service had been extremely helpful.
She recommended the town extend protections to the children of the affected employees until they are 21 years old, as many will not know they been targeted until they require credit verifications.
“The fact that we are having this conversation over a few dollars is appalling to me,” McAlister said, noting it was the town that brought in a convicted felon and gave her access to all employees’ personal information.
“I’m not going to thank you for that attitude,” Bertaut responded.
McCann defended McAlister, saying her “comments were coming from the heart and everyone on staff feels the exact same way.”
But McCann also raised objections to having staff members criticized in public, not a rare occurrence at town council meetings.
“Her ability to be candid and speak her mind is what we understand the council wants us to do. And when we are treated in the manner in which she was, in an open forum, it is extremely frustrating and, professionally to us, it is very impactful. And I can tell you it impacts everyone sitting in this room,” she said.
“Because of our dedication and commitment to this organization, we take it extremely personally when we feel as though we are being maligned, that we are being questioned that our professionalism is being questioned. We all want to do the right thing for this organization. We all want to get to the same place. We all want to work with you. We want to make you look good. We want to give you the information you need to make the decisions that you need to make, but when we feel attacked, when we feel as though what we do does not really matter, we what we do is never quite enough … it is hugely impactful,” she said.
“I don’t mean this to be personal, but it is my job to ask those hard questions,” Bertaut said. “And I appreciate your candor and everything else, but I don’t appreciate the implication that my asking that question is somehow questioning your professionalism, honesty or anything for the sort, because it is not. It is my job, on behalf of the citizens of this town, to ask these tough questions.”
“We’re happy to answer those questions for you sir, but it was the comment that you made about the chief’s comment. It was not necessarily the question. We just ask that we be treated professionally,” McCann said.
“And I ask the same. Thank you,” Bertaut said.