Council OKs adding 6 employees

By WILLIAM KELLY , Daily News Staff Writer

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Town Council on Monday agreed to create six out of 11 new employee positions recommended by Town Manager Peter Elwell as part of a proposed $56.7 million budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Three of the five positions will be in the Fire-Rescue Department. Two of those are inspectors that Fire Chief Edward Moran said are necessary for the town to comply with state fire inspection laws. The third will be an office assistant for fire prevention.

Moran told the council that the department currently has the resources to conduct only a fraction of the inspections required.

"If there were a disaster, we could be exposed to certain types of litigation," Moran warned. "I do not feel comfortable with the level of fire inspection taking place today."

There are about 600 buildings in town that must be inspected. All high-rise buildings, apartment complexes with at least three units, restaurants, hotels, stores and other commercial properties must be inspected at least once a year to make sure they comply with the state fire code, Moran said.

Each of the inspectors, called fire prevention officers, would be paid an annual salary of $62,650 and would conduct about 300 inspections a year, in addition to other duties. Part of their salaries would be offset by special permit and fire inspection fees, Moran said. The office assistant would be paid $23,920.

Harold Nectow, chairman of the Citizens Association of Palm Beach, which represents 48 condominiums south of Sloan's Curve, said the town will find that 90 percent of those buildings are not in compliance with the fire prevention code.

"We're talking about an awful lot of money to get into compliance," he said. "They've been out of compliance for years."

The council voted 4-0 to add the three positions, with Councilman Denis Coleman out of the room when the vote occurred.

Two other positions, unanimously approved at Monday's special meeting on the budget, were a maintenance mechanic and equipment operator for the water resources division of the Public Works Department. Public Works Director Paul Brazil said those posts, which pay about $40,000 each, are needed to help maintain the sanitary sewer system and a storm water drainage system in the midst of a large-scale expansion under way since 2001. The town has added six new drainage stations and four emergency pumps in the North End in the last four years.

Also added was a new code compliance officer for the Planning, Zoning and Building Department. The post will pay $37,000 and will make a total of three building code compliance officers.

Coleman and Bob Moore, director of the building department, said the code officer was needed for the town to tighten its enforcement of building codes. It was approved 3-2, with Council President Bill Brooks and Councilman Allen Wyett opposed.

In an attempt to hold the line on expenditures, the council rejected Elwell's and department heads' recommendations for a building department zoning technician, Fire-Rescue battalion commander, and lifeguard and two marine officers for the Police Department.

"I'm having a difficult time just adding these bodies," Brooks said. "It can only go so far."

The new positions will bring the total number of town employees to the full-time equivalent of 413.

The budget includes a 3 percent cut in the town's tax rate, bringing it down from from $4.02 per $1,000 of taxable value to $3.90. But because property values this year have jumped 12.4 percent, the lower rate still will generate $3.6 million more in revenues to the town.

In other budget decisions Monday, the council unanimously approved $150,000 for a townwide traffic and parking study that will evaluate traffic flow on streets and bridges.

In a unanimous vote, the council approved a $100,000 payment to The Society of the Four Arts library, $50,000 to PB Cats for management of the town's feral cat population, and increases in emergency medical transport, marina dockage and golf and tennis fees.

In a 3-2 vote, with councilmen Richard Kleid and Norman Goldblum opposed, the council reserved $1 million of the town's surplus fund for underground utility conversion. The surplus is projected at $17 million when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Overall, Elwell's proposed 2005-06 budget represents a growth of about 8 percent over this year's. It includes a 3 percent competitive pay increase for all town employees, and an 18 percent increase in retirement and health care costs.

The budget and tax rate are scheduled for formal approval by the council in meetings on Sept. 13 and 21.

In related news, Elwell reported that the town has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursement from FEMA and can count on several million dollars more from the federal agency in reimbursement for damages from last year's two hurricanes. Overall, he said the costs of hurricane repairs will leave the town's general fund with a $400,000 deficit for this fiscal year. The deficit will be covered by the town's surplus.