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Longevity pay questioned, Memorial Day funds approved

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PEPPERELL — Cost-conscious town meeting voters questioned whether reserve fund money could be used to offset the 2009 deficit, suggested it may be time to end longevity pay for town employees, and breezed past funding the Memorial Day parade enroute to passing an $11.23 million municipal budget.

Passed with two dissenting votes, the total reflects the well-publicized $83,000 trimmed from departmental requests by the Finance Committee.

The municipal budget was one of just five articles passed Monday night, leading to a second session of town meeting on Tuesday night, May 6. Passage of a $1 million override dominated more than two hours of the meeting.

The general government section of the budget has $75,000 in the reserve fund that to some voters appeared to be money available to reduce the $1.9 million pre-override deficit.

Town administrator Robert Hanson explained the $75,000 is under the Finance Committee’s control, to be used for unforeseen expenses.

Finance Committee member Christopher DeSimone said the total of those expenses can’t be known until the end of the fiscal year. Most departmental budgets had not included enough for increased gasoline prices, consequently they are expected to request reserve fund transfers, he explained.

Longevity pay that showed up as a line item in, for example, the town administrator’s budget ($750), accountant’s budget ($2,569), and assessors budget ($3,603) was questioned from the floor with the suggestion it may be time to get rid of it.

Finance Committee chairman Diane Gaspar said many employees are union members who cannot renegotiate their contracts in the middle of a term. Longevity might be reconsidered during negotiations, she said.

Hanson explained longevity is a reward for long service beginning at five years and paid in five-year intervals. He said the amounts are largely in agreement with non-contractural employees and is “not huge money,” with a $3,000 ceiling after 25 years of service.

“It averages $500 to $600 per year relating to people who have worked 10 or 15 years,” he said, “and is not aggressive.”

Pushed for a total figure, Hanson said put longevity at $51,000 per year, some $18,000 of that non-contractural.

One resident who did not identify himself on the floor argued, “You’re doing taxpayers a disservice to say $600 is $51,000. In tough times, tough decisions have to be made.”

That section of the budget passed with just two votes in the negative.

The rest of the municipal budget sailed through unanimously, including the town’s reimbursement of $3,000 to the VFW for the Memorial Day parade.

Until an earlier reconsideration by the Finance Committee that ended in 4 to 3 recommendation, Memorial Day reimbursement caused a highly emotional rift between veterans and the committee. Selectmen had refused to back killing the reimbursement.

“What’s this Memorial Day celebration?” an obvious newcomer to town asked from the floor.

“Before we kill you,” moderator Scott Blackburn joked, “let say it’s a parade.”

VFW member Phillip Durno disagreed.

“Speaking as a veteran, it is not just a parade. It is a time to memorialize our war dead from World War I on up. I stand behind it 100 percent,” he said to loud applause.

Gaspar, whose suggestion had been to eliminate the reimbursement, said, “The VFW does the Memorial Day parade for the town. The $3,000 is the town’s reimbursement. The VFW contribution is much more than that. The whole parade costs way more than $3,000.”

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