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AYER — After years of frozen compensation for non-union employees, actions by both Town Meeting and a clarifying vote taken by the Board of Selectmen remove any shadow of a doubt – some employees will receive 5 percent pay increases in this new fiscal year.

Following the May 15 second night of Annual Town Meeting, confusion reigned. Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand sought clarification from the Finance Committee on June 13. But selectmen cast aside the Finance Committee’s concerns, and cast a 3-2 split vote that allows the pay to flow.

The Finance Committee presented Annual Town Meeting with a budget for fiscal 2013 that included a $96,000 “placeholder” which represented any and all compensation, step or other pay or cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) for the coming year. That pot of money was to cover, too, any and all negotiations with the town’s unions. All but one municipal employee contract is up for renewal this year and the selectmen are in the midst of negotiations.

Bucking what had been a three-year trend, Annual Town Meeting unfroze steps for non-union employees subject to the compensation grid. With the step increases, pay for some non-union employees will increase upwards of 3 percent. With the 2 percent COLA vote taken by the selectmen on June 19, about a dozen town employees will receive 5 percent more in total compensation in fiscal 2013.

On the second night of Annual Town Meeting on May 15, Finance Committee Chairman Scott Houde asked voters to reconsider the vote taken the night before to pass the budget during the first night of Town Meeting “to correct the departments that had inflated amounts.”

Houde outlined the Finance Committee’s concerns over the “gray area” again in a June 1 memo to selectmen. The committee stated that it remained unified in its belief that “employees should be eligible for their steps or an increase within the 2 percent planned by the Finance Committee; not both.”

Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand visited the committee June 13, saying the confusion had snowballed due to a “timing issue.” To make payroll for the new fiscal year, “a definitive decision is needed.”

On June 19, selectmen weighed in.

Chairman Jim Fay said that even for those maxed out on the compensation grid, the most they’d receive is a 2 percent COLA. “That, to me, is the heart of the matter from the Finance Committee.”

“It’s not the heart of the matter as far as I’m concerned,” said Selectman Gary Luca.

“Me too,” said Town Accountant Lisa Gabree.

“These non-union employees were hired on the compensation plan. They were hired with steps. Some will get 5 to 6 percent,” said Luca. Union employees bargain for their pay, “so why should we be treating the nonunion any different than union?”

When asked how many would realize a 5 percent raise, Gabree said “maybe a dozen.”

Fay said the “grid is what it is. We’re locked into complying with it.”

“Which we did up until four years ago,” said Luca of the Town Meeting imposed freeze. “The grid needs to be revoked.”

“I agree,” said Fay.

Houde explained to selectmen that the $96,000 sum was a “placeholder simply with dollars.”

“At a couple points in time, the question came up if the money was for steps or COLAS,” said Houde. The Finance Committee and Town Meeting “got no guidance” from the selectmen.

“We look at it as a single number,” said Houde. “I attempted to reopen the warrant article at Annual Town Meeting to advise that there’d be both a 2 percent (COLA) and step increase for some because there was a lot of confusion on night one of Annual Town Meeting.”

Though Ayer is “lucky with the employees we have,” Houde said the Finance Committee agreed that increases of 5 percent are “not in line with our town finances or the economy in general.”

There was no assistance on the issue from the Personnel Board. Chairman Kathleen O’Connor reported from the audience that her panel couldn’t reach a quorum that evening to discuss the matter before the selectmen’s meeting.

“I agree the personnel grid needs improvement,” said Fay. “I see Gary’s point.”

“My recommendation is 2 percent for any non-union employee not in the grid,” said Fay. “I don’t know how it can be more fair than that.”

Selectman Frank Maxant said “one of the negotiation teams for one of the collective bargaining agreements did not catch onto the apparent fact that in addition to 2 percent they getting more with steps. If I had known this in negotiations, I’d say ‘Let’s determine what the steps are costing and then (factor in) 2 percent less.”

“That was the posture I held based on the black-and-white picture provided by the Finance Department,” said Fay.

So we are treating the two groups different?” asked Luca.

“Because we have to,” said Fay. The rules of the grid are different.”

From the audience, Fire Chief Robert Pedrazzi said there are eight firefighters in his department who get steps and Police Chief William Murray said there are two patrolmen who receive steps.

Luca latched onto the data. “So there’s 10 (employees) with a step and a 2 percent COLA which they got in previous years. You’re treating the two groups differently.”

Gabree said she was “scrambling around” at Town Meeting to “adjust” the budget, since it included the $96,000 placeholder but did not contemplate voters unfreezing the compensation plan.

“My biggest problem is with the Finance Committee recommendations,” said Gabree. “They don’t grow the whole plan. What am I supposed to have — one grid, and then the rest of us? It’s bastardizing the compensation plan. I don’t understand the purpose anymore.”

Gabree said past practice is for the Personnel Board to make a COLA recommendation, which is then voted on by selectmen following review of the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

Maxant said for those who get steps, another approach could be to reduce that sum by 2 percent “so within a group there are two different categories.”

“Let me make it more simple,” said Fay. “Whatever I’m giving you it won’t exceed 2 percent.”

“Well that’s news to me, Mr. Chair,” said Luca.

“I don’t know how many ways I have to say it,” answered Fay.

“But the steps were already in the budget,” said Gabree.

“All I can tell you is these are the rules I have to operate by,” said Fay.

The Town Meeting vote was a “surprise to me,” said Pontbriand. “If we’d known that, we’d have planned accordingly. Lesson learned.”

But for fiscal 2013, with the unfrozen steps, “does that mean the town has to pay those steps?” asked Pontbriand.

“I’d think so,” said Fay.

“According to their performance evaluation,” suggested selectman Pauline Conley.

“Let’s be real,” answered Fay. “Who does that?”

“I do one every year,” said Board of Health member Mary Spinner regarding the board’s secretary.

Pontbriand said he, too, was working on performance evaluations for department heads under the selectmen’s purview.

Finance Committee Michael Pattenden suggested that if an employee is to receive a 2 percent COLA, it should come off the top of whatever other compensation increase an employee realizes. “If steps are the highest priority, then 2 percent comes out,” said Pattenden. “Sorry Gary, it would include everybody so there’s no difference between union and non-union (employees).”

Otherwise, “Let’s say the steps are on top — where is the additional money? It wasn’t voted,” said Pattenden.

“Yes it was,” said Gabree. “I made the changes on the Town Meeting floor.”

“All the steps are in the budget,” said Luca. “The $96,000 is extra.”

“We did $96,000 as a placeholder for total compensation for whatever you want to call it,” said Houde. The unfreezing of the compensation plan caused a $13,720 increase, said Houde.

Luca made a motion to give all employees a 2 percent COLA. Fay joined Luca along with Maxant. Voting against the move was Conley and Selectman Christopher Hillman.

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