AYER -- The Finance Committee met with the Personnel Board on Sept. 12 to discuss how the town's compensation grid and grade/step system works for the town's nonunion employees whose pay is set by Town Meeting. Most town employees are unionized and paid through contracts negotiated by selectmen.
Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde said a consensus is forming to hire a consultant to suggest changes to the nonunion compensation grid, which hasn't been reviewed in years.
Personnel Board member Lisa White noted that under the nonunion compensation grid "Any given employee will move one step per year."
"Do people get a step every year unless they get fired?" asked Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon, who also just joined the Personnel Board.
Yes, as long as the employee receives a "positive annual review," said White. When they've hit the top step, "we just call it topped-out."
Personnel Committee Chair Kathleen O'Connor said the compensation grid is a 12- to 15-grade matrix that pegs employees according to their education, experience and technical knowledge.
"It just seems to me that it's expected each year that you get a step," said Muldoon. "Is there a way you don't get a step or increase if you're not at the top?"
Yes, repeated White, if an employee's "performance is not satisfactory."
The idea of near-automatic step increases irked Finance Committee member Michael Pattenden. Private employers need only "reward a person's ability and willingness to work.
"If you haven't upset anybody, you'd get a step," said Pattenden of the nonunion municipal employee. "That seems to me to be wrong."
Why reward an employee who "really doesn't want to work and just hangs around the office," said Pattenden. "He's less useful to me ... It just seems unfair -- just because you've lived and come to work for the past year you get the same raise."
There was brief confusion over whether or not a town employee's performance review is a public record.
No, said O'Connor. Yes, said White.
"Only the superintendent of school's review is a public process," said Selectman Pauline Conley from the audience. Ayer-Shirley School Superintendent Carl Mock sat inches away from Conley and nodded in agreement.
Houde said the last budget cycle was "a learning experience for all of us." To prepare for annual Town Meeting last May, the Finance Committee tried a different approach to fund pay increases of all types.
The committee established a line item that equated to a 2 percent pay increase for all employees. The Finance Committee intended the funds to be the source for any and all pay increases granted in fiscal 2013, whether through cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs), step increases or bargained contracts.
Houde said the COLA "actually shifts all of the grid by 2 percent."
"No," countered White. "It's a separate increase."
"That's not correct," said Conley. "The entire grid shifts. Historical documents will show the grid shifts (and) the entire grid is recalculated."
Conley explained that Town Accountant Lisa Gabree scrambled at annual Town Meeting to calculate the budgetary impact following the assembly's vote to award nonunion employees a 2 percent COLA.
"That's what she was doing the second night of annual Town Meeting," said Conley. "So the steps all shifted according to the percentage of the cost-of-living-adjustment."
Selectman Gary Luca added that union contract have steps "as opposed to a grid. Whatever step they'd be at, that would increase every year and they'd get their COLA atop of that -- same as the nonunion. Only with the union, it's automatic, and with the nonunion, up until last year, it was not automatically granted."
Up until this spring, Town Meeting had denied pay bumps for nonunion employees over the past three fiscal cycles.
Most agree the nonunion compensation grid is in need of an update, noted Houde. Houde said the Ayer Executive Bi-Board (comprised of selectmen and Finance Committee representatives) were "pretty much unanimous" on the need to hire a third-party contractor to suggest ways to update the grid. "That's something we'd find the funding for."