AYER -- Selectmen approved a reserve fund transfer requested by Tax Collector John Canney to bring in a temporary, full time assistant tax collector. The hire would cover for Assistant Collector Roberta Chase who has been out of work on an extended illness for the last nine weeks.
Chase's doctor projects she'll will be out of work for another six to 10 weeks. Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said it was agreed by AFSCME Local 93 and Canney that Treasurer Stephanie Gintner was a "logical choice" to lend Canney's office a hand since both offices use the same MUNIS financial software system and Gintner is likewise bonded to handle checks.
While Gintner is "still helping a couple hours here and there," Pontbriand said Canney is asking for a full time temporary assistant collector. The selectmen majority agreed, voting 3-2 to authorize the necessary reserve fund transfer for the unexpected mid-year expense.
Pontbriand noted the Finance Committee must also approve of the transfer before it can take effect, and the temporary post must be impact-bargained with the union but that approval is likely since there are no other AFSCME Local 93 members who are experienced with the financial software system for the short-term pull.
Canney holds to elected offices -- he's both the Tax Collector and the Town Clerk. Canney has both Chase as Assistant Tax Collector and Lauri Fritz as Assistant Town Clerk. Without Chase's help, Canney said their office is out of balance.
"We're a 2-legged stool in a three-legged stool office," said Canney.
Canney rattled off a list of the work load crossing over their desks in recent weeks: 684 real estate bills were sent on Dec. 31, as were 512 personal tax bills. There are 500 dog licenses up for renewal, and this week more than 3,000 census forms are to be mailed. Add in excise tax bills on vehicles, plus all the other marriage, birth, death and other certificates, and Canney said the work load tallies fast.
"In the next couple weeks there will be more than 17,000 documents in that office," said Canney. Also on tap -- the annual town election on April 22 and the annual Town Meeting on May 13. "Our office never stops."
Canney said he's talked with the Massachusetts Treasurers and Collectors Association for assistance in finding someone skilled and ready to step into the short-term, full-time roll. A trained retiree may fit the bill, said Canney.
Canney sought and received selectmen support for hiring a temp for up to 16 weeks. "If Robert, God willing, comes back any time before then, then the need [for a temp] ceases," said Canney. "But it takes time to prepare for something like this. I'd rather look at a longer period of time."
While the temporary worker would qualify both for benefits and for unemployment compensation when let go, selectman Gary Luca said "There really is no way around it. I feel it's a cost of doing business. It needs to be done. We put a lot of pressure on the collector to collect taxes."
Selectman Chair Jim Fay said that he originally felt loaned assistance from other town departments could quilt together coverage, but he said "they can't help you on the consistent basis that you need it."
"When you mix and match, that's when you have issues and things fall through the cracks," agreed Luca.
Selectmen Christopher Hillman and Pauline Conley disagreed with the reserve fund transfer request. Conley said that arrangement is still working now" between Gintner and Canney. Conley suggested the work load that required a bonded official could still be performed by Gintner, and that perhaps senior citizens looking to work off their property taxes through a new abatement program could provide Canney with clerical assistance in the interim.
For sending and receiving thousands of pieces of mail, "you do not need a bonded, MUNIS-trained assistant collector," asserted Conley.
Canney said there's no savings, per se, with a temporary hire since the union would require that an assistant collector be paid at the same rate of pay that Chase earns. What if that post remains vacant temporarily and only a clerk were hired, asked Conley. "You don't pay a department assistant at the same rate as a MUNIS trained, bonded assistant tax collector," said Conley.
Selectman Frank Maxant suggested that perhaps Gintner was willing to provide the assistance in the short term. Fay flatly rejected the notion, citing Gintner's term ends this spring. Gintner is seeking a fresh three-year term as treasurer in the April 22 town election.
"There's a chance the treasurer may not be re-elected," said Fay. "Let's be candid here." Maxant, Fay and Luca approved the transfer request. Canney appears before the Ayer Finance Committee Wednesday night at 7 p.m. to seek final approval for his request.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.