PEPPERELL — Going into Annual Town Meeting, moderator Scott Blackburn told a full house that he hoped the discussion would be fair, civil and respectful, adding, “we invite you to speak your opinion. No question is too insignificant.”
Residents took him up on the offer, resolutely examining, questioning and voting the 10-section, $11.23 million municipal budget, section by section.
The evening began with presentations by Finance Committee Chairman Diane Gaspar and school Superintendent Dr. Maureen Marshall.
Four hours later, voters had dispensed with five of 28 Annual Town Meeting warrant articles the first night, and the five-article Special Town Meeting warrant which town bylaw demands be addressed during the annual session.
Voters eventually passed a controversial $1 million override request — to knock down a $1.9 million deficit — which would add $255 to the average homeowner’s property taxes and a million dollars to future budgets.
If approved by a June 23 ballot vote, the $1 million will be embellished by $400,000 from free cash; $200,000 from the retirement fund; $64,000 from enterprise funds; and $107,700 from the stabilization fund, to cut the shortfall to $141,714.
There were other articles that elicited questions, however.
Elimination of stipends for elected part-time officials, recommended by the FinCom, was approved; however, the motion as read by Selectman Joseph Sergi would have funded all of the stipends with transfers from Water and Sewer Department enterprise fund money.
That is justified, town administrator Robert Hanson explained, because the list of affected officials includes three DPW board officials who receive part of their stipends from the user-fee-generated enterprise funds, which are routinely used to pay for extra charges.
Expected to save less than $1 per taxpayer, Phillip Durno argued for the move saying, “Management is laying off every day and they aren’t giving out raises. We are.”
Board of Health Chairman Myra Cacace asked how zero stipends would allow contributions to the town retirement plan. Selectman Joseph Sergi said the state no longer requires employees to pay into it.
That fact would later figure into a rejected suggestion that retirement money be used to offset the override amount.
Cacace asked if employees injured on the job would be covered by town insurance. They would.
The moderator lightened the mood, jesting that it will now take newly elected Selectman Patrick McNabb 12 years to pay off his campaign expenses.
Gaspar argued that a majority of towns no longer offer stipends.
Resident Donald Bradanese, however, countered that stipends don’t come close to paying for the amount of time officials spend on the job.
FinCom member Stephanie Cronin said she was not comfortable mixing enterprise funds with “non-enterprise items.”
The motion was defeated 224 to 130.
Step raises for all classes of employees, said to represent 3 percent, were approved, against the recommendation of Virginia Malouin, who argued that the true separation between steps is 4 percent. When added to the 3 percent overall hike, she said, the raises equal 7 percent.
A counter-argument from the floor pointed out it is cheaper to pay step increases than to hire new employees.
Hanson said the majority of employees are at step six (the highest) and are at maximum pay level. Only new employees get the inter-step raises, he said.
However, when 2009 maximum step salaries are compared with those from 2008 as listed in the town report, there is a 3 percent increase.
Town meeting was scheduled to resume on Tuesday, May 6.