GROTON -- In a preview of potentially divisive issues to be considered by 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 down 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.
Currently, each employee earns approximately $23/hour with one having been employed for 10 years and the one working 19 hours for 5.5 years.
Cost for the increased hour for the 19-hour employee, 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 at which benefits take effect.
Finance Committee 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 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.
No decision was made on whether these articles will be brought before fall Town Meeting on Oct. 21.