GROTON -- In a preview of potentially divisive issues to be considered by voters at fall town meeting, municipal officials wrangled over an omnibus spending article totaling $196,000.
The article seeks extra funding to make up for shortfalls in the town's fiscal 2014 budget. It was reduced by $40,000 when town manager Mark Haddad told selectmen Sept. 16 that an original request by the Police Department for $120,000 against the purchase of two new cruisers had been ratcheted downward to $80,000.
The department made the change following a recent accident in which one of its current vehicles was totaled in a high-speed chase.
Instead, the department now expects to seek the purchase of only one unmarked car at a cost of $30,000 and a new cruiser to replace the one that was wrecked for which the town would only need to pay $18,000. The balance of $22,000 would be supplied by the insurance company that covered the damaged vehicle.
But the item in the omnibus article that drew the most heat was a request by Haddad to increase the hours of one of two part-time employees in the Town Clerk's Office from 19 to 20.
Cost for the increased hours, said Haddad, would come to $16,000 a year.
According to Haddad, the situation at present is not fair since one part-timer works 20 hours with all the benefits that go with it and the other is held at 19 hours, just below the threshold when benefits take effect.
FinCom Chairman Jay Prager has already expressed reservations about the request in a prior meeting of the Finance Committee. At the Monday night meeting, he questioned having an item that was clearly new spending mixed in with an article dealing with tying up loose ends from an already approved budget.
Selectman Jack Petropoulos agreed with Prager saying he would prefer to see the wage increase covered in a separate article.
"I would love to give benefits to everybody but this is about saving taxpayers' money," said Petropoulos.
But Haddad said there was no need for a separate measure because each item in the current article could be voted on separately at town meeting.
"Sometimes decisions are more than dollars and cents," said Haddad.
In defense of the request, Town Clerk Michael Bouchard said there is a need for two people in his busy office especially when election time comes around and more flexibility is needed. Furthermore, it just is not fair that two people doing the same job are not compensated in the same manner.
Participating in the meeting remotely, Selectman Stuart Schulman recalled having voted to create the 19-hour position six years before. But recognizing the fundamental need for fairness, he said he was willing to change his position and support the increase.
But if fairness was the question, Prager suggested, why not reduce the existing 20-hour position to 19 with a corresponding savings in not having to pay benefits?
Petropoulos added that if a change is to be considered, perhaps the proper course is to conduct a needs analysis as is done in the business world after which an informed decision can be made.
But Haddad insisted that the decision of what to do is legally the responsibility of voters at town meeting.
"Let the taxpayers decide," concluded Haddad.
Similarly, the Board of Library Trustees was also seeking to upgrade the hours of a young adult librarian position, which Trustee Mark Gerath characterized as "very dynamic and important" to the library.
Here again, the same questions of need-versus-added-costs were discussed along with the possibility that every part-time position created by the town could eventually become a benefits-paying one.
"The way we're going, we won't be hiring any more part-timers," noted Selectman Anna Eliot of the chilling effect the inevitability of such requests would create.
Fall town meeting is scheduled for Oct. 21.
Also at the Sept. 16 meeting, selectmen:
* Voted to appoint David Manugian to replace long-time member Michael Flynn on the Finance Committee; Dawn Dunbar as executive assistant to the town manager replacing the departing Patrice Garvin; town planner Michelle Collette to the Insurance Advisory Committee; and Michael Hartnett as the town's alternate representative on the Minuteman Nashoba Health Group.
* Learned from Haddad that the project to replace the aging Fitch's Bridge over the Nashua River with a new span came in ahead of schedule and under budget. Calling the project "extremely successful," the town manager told the board that although $480,000 had been budgeted for the bridge replacement, only $442,000 ended up being spent. "This project was outstanding," enthused Haddad. "It was absolutely the best public project I've ever been involved with as town manager." The new bridge was officially dedicated Sept. 15.
* Voted to charge a Trails Vision Committee, which would explore ways the town's extensive trails system could graduate from a local system to a regional one tying into other systems in central Massachusetts. The new committee would be comprised of seven members representing different interests in town.