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PEPPERELL — Last year, selectmen concentrated their fiscal budgetary efforts on a $647,000 override referendum to Proposition 2 1/2 in order to keep the library, senior and community centers open.

This year, Chairman Joseph Sergi has said the effort is concentrating on maintaining municipal services in light of a $550,000 shortfall as May’s Town Meeting approaches.

Against that background has come three requests for waivers of the hiring freeze established in 2008 — one from Town Clerk Lois Libby, another from Police Chief David Scott and a third from Communications Director Frank Quattrochi.

Selectmen, knowing police have lost two officers and Scott’s former job as lieutenant probably won’t be filled, and having seen highway department workers laid off, as well as decrease in working hours in Town Hall and the loss of other part-time positions, were put on the spot.

They unanimously voted Monday night to reject Libby’s plea for more hours for the assistant clerk in lieu of working with town administrator John Moak to find internal sources to help share the clerk’s workload.

They agreed with Scott that a replacement for police administrative secretary Cathy Forrest as she retires in early August is needed, but they rejected the chief’s request for a two-month overlap period in favor of a two-week break-in cycle for the new person.

They also voted unanimously to hire a dispatcher to replace firefighter/EMT Ben Simmons, who has moved to the Fire Department to fill a vacancy created by the recent resignation of paramedic Al Deshler.

Libby is retiring as clerk. Her replacement will be one of the seven candidates who will be on the April 26 election ballot. She has asked for more hours for the assistant in order to help ease the new clerk into the job as the people’s choice attends school to learn the ropes. Libby said she can barely keep up with the work load herself right now with the assistant’s hours cut to 25.5 per week.

“You’re saving money with my leaving,” Libby told board members.

Selectman Joseph Hallisey was unsure about the request. On one hand, it’s a concern that an experienced clerk is struggling to keep up and on the other, there is the question of saving money, he said.

Selectman Patrick McNabb feared that a vote to waive the freeze would open up a Pandora’s Box of similar requests.

“I respect your concern,” Sergi said, but he reminded listeners that there are unfilled police shifts, the town operating budget has been drawn down by $3 million, state aid has decreased and the structural deficit still exists.

“Until we can have the town administrator and finance committee come back with a report that we’re in the black, we can’t let up on that,” he said.

“If (candidates) are running for your position, they’d better be talking to you,” he told Libby. “As the election draws near there are probably some (candidates) who are more up to speed but that’s hard to tell folks. For example, we have a CPA with (current Town Treasurer Michael Hartnett) yet anyone can run for that job.

Sergi suggested Libby could help selectmen formulate some questions that could be asked of candidates. Meanwhile, he said, Libby could work with Administrator John Moak to try to share her work load.

Scott said he wants to advertise Forrest’s job in April. He saw need for at least one month’s training and figured a replacement would save the town about $3,500. Former chief Alan Davis had put Forrest’s salary money into the 2011 budget before he retired, Scott said.

He said Forrest performed many more roles than her job description dictates. His department does have a part time senior clerk however the required skill set is less than needed.

“Cathy does budget, payroll, is parking clerk, licenses firearms and more,” Scott said. “If I’m not there she answers radios and phones because there is only one dispatcher on duty.”

“With your department if we don’t address (the retirement) it’d be down another person,” Sergi said. “We do not want mediocrity in police. Everyone expects the department to be the best.”

Hallisey said it isn’t feasible for Scott to do two jobs.

“Someone’s got to handle the traffic (coming to police). What should we do, pull someone in from the street?” he asked. “This is not adding a person, it’s replacing one while saving money.”

McNabb said his first response would be to shift responsibilities within personnel to cover the job.

“It’s a unique skill set that the chief must look at. It’s multitasking,” Moak said.

Scott argued for a two month overlap of the position, primarily because “there are things I haven’t learned from Cathy yet,” he said.

“You’re the chief and your job is learning to be chief,” Sergi said. You have a town administrator here, (administrative assistant Peggy Mazzola) is here and there are a lot of resources in town. You could offload payroll for example,” Sergi said.

“(John Moak’s) not going to help me register a sex offender. You probably won’t find someone who does it all,” Scott said.

“There’s a lot of unemployment out there,” McNabb said.

Selectmen voted to have Forrest’s replacement start work no earlier than July 26, leaving the matter open as to whether Scott wishes to re-approach the board.