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AYER — Although the two-year contract signed by town administrator Shaun Suhoski in January resembles that of his predecessor, Anita Scheipers, his contract has some new items in it. Specifically, increased vacation time, a provision for an extended leave of absence and expanded educational incentives.

It is disputed as to whether a sizable severance pay provision was included.

Asked about the contract, Board of Selectmen (BOS) Chairman Faye Morrison downplayed any increases, expressing satisfaction with the agreement.

“I think the contract is a fair one for Shaun Suhoski and the town of Ayer,” she said. “We have retained a fine employee, and he has been compensated well.”

Suhoski, who was the Community and Economic Development Director prior to taking the position, expressed satisfaction as well.

“I’m pleased that we reached an agreement,” said Suhoski. “I think that it protects both sides.”

In terms of dollars, Suhoski’s annual starting wage of $68,089 is 7.4 percent higher than the $63,107 Scheipers received five years ago.

The compensation included a possible five-figure severance payout to Suhoski if the selectmen choose, without cause, not to re-appoint him when the contract expires in June 2008.

Under that circumstance, the town would owe Suhoski four months of salary, unless he begins a job that is economically comparable before June 30 of the final contract year.

The severance package was part of the agreement the town had with Scheipers, though it was not within her initial contract, said Morrison.

Selectman Pauline Conley disagreed, terming the severance provision one of several new items she objected to.

Suhoski was her fourth choice among the finalists, she said.

In addition to the severance package, Conley against educational incentive stipend, which she said was another new benefit.

The incentive states the town will reimburse up to $1,200 per semester for one course toward Suhoski’s masters degree in public or business administration provided he gets at least a B.

The contract signed by Scheipers only had a professional development allowance that covered courses necessary for professional development. However, it was subject to budget limitations, and did not carry a specific dollar amount.

Suhoski’s stipend can cover books, fees and tuition expenses. He’s also allowed to take up to half of one work day per week to pursue his degree, provided he completes all his job duties.

Suhoski termed his agreement a clarification on the arrangement Schiepers had, which made sense in his case.

“The board and I agreed that additional education in public or business administration is always beneficial,” he said. “I’m pleased that provision was included.”

However, after incorporating the severance package and stipend into a potential bottom line, Conley said it made Suhoski as expensive as other candidates she felt were more qualified. She also said price was a factor during those negotiations.

“By the time the contract was negotiated, the full value of that contract was more than what we could have had the best qualified candidate for,” she said.

The contract also allows Suhoski to take a paid or unpaid leave of absence of up to six months by a majority vote of the selectmen. Suhoski called that stipulation typical to such agreements and not preparation for current plans.

“There’s absolutely nothing foreseen that would lead to that,” he said. “It’s a standard provision in a lot of town manager contracts.”

The leave can be further extended at the discretion of the board, and it specified that leaves of less than six months would not be considered a break in service.

There’s also a provision for the town to continue covering Suhoski’s medical and life insurance premiums while he is on leave, at the discretion of the board.

Finally, the contract allows Suhoski four weeks of vacation per year, as opposed to the 15 days that were allowed to Scheipers annually.

The extended vacation time was to reflect Suhoski’s five-plus years of service for the town, said Morrison.

In terms of future raises, town accountant Lisa Gabree said each annual step carries a 3 percent increase.

A Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) also figures into that bottom line, she said. The COLA is typically determined by the selectmen at the end of the annual budget process, citing the 2 percent COLA from last year as an example.

Suhoski was appointed to the position by the BOS on Jan. 6, pending contract negotiations. The selectmen completed those deliberations on Jan. 17, which is the date on the contract.