SHIRLEY — The Town Administrator’s plan to revamp town government was backed by selectmen and the Finance Committee when she proposed it last month.
But it went down in a first-round knockout at Town Meeting Monday night.
A majority of the 198 registered voters present dismantled the envisioned municipal makeover, one line item at a time.
Purportedly aimed at efficiency and based on other community models, government studies and Department of Revenue recommendations, part of the plan called for consolidating and/or downsizing positions.
One proposal was to swap the existing “soft close” of the Town Offices on Fridays for a “hard close” in which the building would not only be off-line to the public, it would be shuttered to employees as well, reducing their 40 hour work week to 32 hours.
Other cuts went deeper, slicing some positions in half.
Town Meeting said no, several times.
Salary cuts, intrinsic to the overall plan, were built into the balanced budget as presented. But while working through the Omnibus Budget, proposals to cut salaries were rejected via amendments when those line items came up. All the amendments passed.
As a result, salaries for the Town Clerk, Tax Collector, Selectmen’s Executive Assistant, Building Inspector and others were reinstated to their full, requested amounts.
Most of the amendments tapped the Stabilization Fund for the added money, despite an earlier Finance Committee presentation in which Chairman Stewart Cady and member Mike Swanton both cautioned against any such move.
Citing “best practices” and fiscal common sense, they said bank accounts such as Stabilization and Capital Stabilization Funds should grow, year to year, for the town to sustain itself and should not be used for the operating budget.
The town can’t keep spending more money than it collects in recurring revenue, they said, continuing to build a “structural deficit” that undercuts long-term sustainability.
The message apparently was lost in translation.
Speaking up for the status quo
Selectman Bob Prescott said the cuts were not “personal,” but others disagreed.
Gaynor Bigleback stood to speak up for Town Clerk Amy McDougall.
“In all the years she’s worked here, we’ve never really paid her for the work she does,” Bigleback said, citing matters in which McDougall goes the extra mile to do her job.
Debunking the notion that the municipal structure is less efficient in Shirley than in other towns that do things differently, she cited Ayer, which has an assistant Town Clerk, as does Chelmsford, where Garvin lives.
“We simply have Amy,” Bigleback said.
For her part, McDougall explained adjustments she made in her office schedule that Garvin had bundled into the rationale for downsizing her time on the job and her salary. Most of the changes were generated by state regulations, McDougall said.
“It’s a matter of focusing on what really needs to be done in the office,” McDougall said. “Those were the choices that I made.”
“I have more than I can do in 40 hours,” she continued. “It deeply disturbs me to … reduce my hours and my salary to lower than it was when I started,” she said.
As for removing dog licensing from her purview and handing it over to the dog officer, as proposed, state law would not allow it, McDougall said.
Town Collector Holly Haase, the other elected official whose job would be cut to 32 hours, with a commensurate pay cut, said the impact on town services would be palpable if she could not get all her work done, which has been a challenge since her longtime assistant was terminated last year.
The same goes for every job on the hit list, she said, given the multiple duties they take on and the vital links between offices. “None of us wears only one hat,” she said, noting the work she started to collect back taxes via the “tax taking” process. She’d be farther along if she had the help, Haase said.
The cuts will diminish the town’s cash flow and affect residents, Haase predicted, listing her duties, which include collecting, recording and reporting all kinds of taxes and fees. “Nearly $12 million passes through my one-person office” every year, she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
“So what do you not want me to do?” she asked, finally. “I hope you will support our town government.”
Kathi Rocco, executive assistant to the selectmen, also spoke out against the cuts, which would hurt her personally and professionally, she said.
Besides her work for the town administrator and the selectmen, Rocco is also the employee benefits coordinator.
“All of us who live and work here have real world bills to pay” and were hired for the jobs they do, with agreed-upon salaries commensurate with their duties and experience.
“It’s just wrong,” she said of the proposed cuts. “We shouldn’t be in this position.”
Town Accountant Bobbi Jo Colburn, another town employee on the list of cuts, sketched her concerns, which included reduced office staff time and work backing up.
Amid the angst, one amendment, which Bryan Dumont called “vindictive,” seemed calculated to push back, downsizing Garvin’s $92,000 salary, plus expenses, which as John Oelfke noted, was the only town hall job not hit in the restructuring process.
With proposed cuts in town employee salaries ranging from 20 to 50 percent, it was the only one with “no decrease at all,” he said.
It is also the only one covered by a contract, selectmen pointed out.
Betsy Mirkovic made the initial amendment targeting Garvin’s pay. “I’ve never met the town administrator,” she said, but in her view, a 20 percent cut would level the field.
John Oelfke followed up with a second amendment that changed the cut to 10 percent, which he said was within legal limits.
But Selectman Kendra Dumont said it could backfire if Garvin files a lawsuit to get the money back, which the town attorney said she has a legal right to do.
Moderator Enrico Cappucci said it was up to Town Meeting to decide, either way. “You run the show, it’s your call,” he said. “I will allow the amendment.”
Dumont questioned whether he was acting in the town’s best interests. “I’d hope you wouldn’t allow something that will get us sued,” she said.
“It’s not my job” to consider that, Cappucci countered. The amendment passed.
Selectmen Chairman Dave Swain said that Garvin was the right person for the job and the selectmen are glad they hired her. “She’s brought new ideas, we support her 100 percent,” he said.
Patterson Road resident Adam Arakelian said he hadn’t heard any new ideas discussed in a public forum, nor a plan to generate new revenue.
“You’ve heard this before … about the structural deficit,” ventured Prescott. “The numbers are growing at a rate that’s not sustainable.” As for what the board aims to do about it, “we tried to change zoning,” he said, targeting parts of Great and Lancaster roads. But the effort failed at the Fall Town Meeting.
Acknowledging that a Proposition 2/12 tax override bid is another option and most likely on the horizon, he said that in his view, it would fail now. “We have to become more efficient first,” he said.
Arakelian was not convinced. “A little more transparency could go a long way,” he said. “A lot of us would support a plan” hammered out in a public process, with input, he said.
Assessor Ron Marchetti, making a case for his board and the Principal Assessor’s job later on, said pretty much the same thing. “You can’t spring surprises and expect people to jump through hoops,” he said.
“We need to have a plan,” said Marchetti, who is retiring from the board next month. But the assessors should have been part of the planning process, he said.
“I would not recommend any changes without due diligence,” he said. “If these changes go through, we believe the town will fail.”
His amendment, reinstating Rebecca Boucher’s full-time position as principal assessor, passed by the required two-thirds majority.
Building Inspector Donald “Butch” Farrar, briefly spoke up for his position and that of the department’s office manager, Sandi Hill, who also serves as secretary to the Board of Health. Both were cut from 40 to 20 hours a week on the premise that the town doesn’t need a full-time inspector and that the office can function on a half-time basis.
A contractor from out of town who has been building a development in Shirley said that would be a shortsighted decision and would hurt business in the long run.
Health Board Chairman Jay Howlett said his volunteer board couldn’t get along without the work Hill does for them, and he doubts she could do it all in 20 hours a week.
“If we don’t want to cut direct services, this … is a bad idea,” Betsy Mirkovic said. “It’s easy to cut corners, but people need time to do their jobs.” She suggested the plan on the table now might not have been thoroughly thought out.
Keith Begun tended to agree. “It appears decisions were made based on statistics,” he said. “That’s how you lose an argument.”
Turning the tables on selectmen’s admonishment not to take the cuts “personally,” he said they shouldn’t take all the pushback personally, either. Next time, they should include employees in the planning process, he said.
With several line items in the Omnibus Budget left to consider, including two regional school district assessments above the recommended amounts, Cappucci suggested it might be prudent to press ahead to at least polish off the budget, even if it was late.
However, after learning that both the Ayer Shirley Regional School District and Nashoba Tech planned presentations to explain their assessments, and with 14 articles to follow the Omnibus Budget, he reconsidered. The meeting was continued to Tuesday night.