GROTON — The 218 residents attending Monday night’s session of fall Town Meeting did not get far with the 22 articles listed on the warrant, bogging down early in the evening with a request for additional revenue to help pay for odds and ends in the fiscal 2014 operating budget.
Principally, it was the issue of extending work hours for one of two assistants in the town clerk’s office from 19 to 20, a move advocated by several officials, including Town Manager Mark Haddad and Town Clerk Michael Bouchard.
Both men insisted the issue was one of “fairness” in an office where one assistant worked 20 hours a week, qualifying for all of the benefits offered to full-time employees, including health insurance, vacation time and retirement, and the other, doing exactly the same job, receiving none of those.
The conundrum for opponents was that increasing the hours worked for the one employee from 19 to 20 would cost the town about $16,000 a year if all benefits were claimed.
Deliberation of the issue at Town Meeting began when Selectman Jack Petropoulos took the floor to offer an amendment to a motion to approve the general government appropriation, which covers the town clerk’s assistant position, that would deduct the $881 covering the increase in hours.
If the increase in hours were approved, Petropoulos argued, 40 of the 52 new hours would not even be worked if the employee took a week’s vacation.
“This is about managing a budget and managing it well,” Petropoulos insisted, saying it’s not a personal issue.
Petropoulos was supported by Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager, who said the issue is not one of “equity” but, if the change were to be approved, one that would create inequity due to the many other 19-hour positions in town government.
If the request were to be approved, warned Prager, those others would soon be asking for the same treatment.
But Prager was challenged by fellow FinCom member Robert Hargraves, who supported the additional hours, calling it a “fairness issue.”
“You can’t define everything in fiscal terms,” Hargraves said.
“These are equal positions and ought to be treated as such,” Bouchard added in defense of the request.
Bouchard and Hargraves were joined in support by Selectman Stuart Schulman, who had backed the 19-hour position when the original decision was made by the Board of Selectmen. Since then, however, Schulman said he has changed his mind.
“It’s about people,” he said.
But Selectman Joshua Degen disagreed, saying that without proper study of the position and its responsibilities, it’s impossible to make an objective decision on the need for an expansion of work hours.
What is needed first, said Degen, is a needs analysis that could be performed over the next several months and presented at spring Town Meeting, when the issue could be decided with concrete data in hand. To do otherwise, he warned, would be like “opening a Pandora’s box” of similar claims.
Haddad rose to defend the request, saying it’s not a similar case to other 19-hour positions in town because in the town clerk’s office, it’s two people doing the same job in the same room.
Although others, including Personnel Board member Bud Robertson and resident Becky Pine sided with Degen to delay the decision until next year following a needs analysis, they were eventually overruled by a bare majority of voters who decided, 99-94, against the amendment offered by Petropoulos.
From there, the general government portion of the $198,904 budget article with the increase in hours for the town clerk’s office was approved, as was the rest of the measure, which included police and Council on Aging expenses, information-technology wages, and an increase from 19 to 20 hours for a young-adult librarian.
Town Meeting also voted to:
* Offset the tax rate from money available in free cash to the tune of $100,000, in effect returning unused money collected back into the hands of taxpayers, each of whom is expected to receive $28 in the form of a tax reduction.
* Appropriate $58,000 for the purchase of two new cruisers, one marked and the other unmarked.
* Appropriate $50,000 for the Parks Commission to spruce up and conduct repairs to the town’s various commons and playing fields.
* Join the Central Massachusetts Mosquito Control Project for three years at an annual fee of $73,000. The decision came despite some concerns about the effect of anti-mosquito spraying on local birds, bees and fish. The town had once belonged to the group, but quit over concerns that chemicals used at the time to control mosquitoes were toxic. Since that time, the group’s approach to mosquito management has changed, with more environmentally friendly substances targeted in areas where mosquitoes breed rather than random spraying around town.
Town Meeting is scheduled for Oct. 29.