Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Town Meeting: In it for the long haul

I breezed into last night’s town meeting at 7:00 on the dot, figuring that by the time everyone got signed in and seated we’d be ready to start in on the 62 articles up for resolution. I didn’t plan on attending the Special Town Meeting at 6:30 since it essentially was just to clean up any loose ends from the current fiscal year and appropriate whatever leftover funds we had to necessary accounts. Nothing to it, really.

Or, maybe not. It took us 2 hours and 55 minutes to get through what I thought would be 15 rubber-stamp decisions. The Regular Town Meeting did not begin until 9:25, and we only got through nine of the articles before adjourning at 11:10. So we’re back again tonight for the remaining 53 items.

What took so long? For one, the town debated the question of whether or not to give merit pay increases for the last six months of 2008. The increases would only have been for those workers who received favorable reviews from their superiors. The merit raise would have been 3%, and the town meeting was being asked to appropriate the $25,000 necessary to pay for the raises. After well over an hour of discussion, the motion was defeated by a relatively close vote.

I was stunned. To me, it seemed like this was an easy thing to do. Take $25,000 of money that is left over from FY08 revenues and use it to fund merit pay increases for town workers who have earned it.

But the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee did not do a very good job explaining the article. Instead of framing it in small terms (for instance, a DPW worker making $14.00 would get an increase to $14.42 per hour, or less than $17 per week), the article was described as a 3% increase which was payable over the last six months of the fiscal year so it was really only a 1.5% increase as far as the town was concerned since they were only paying it out over the last half of FY08. That begged the question from many townspeople of whether the increase was really 6% since there is an automatic 3% step increase at the start of FY09. The response from Finance was that it was really just a 4.5% increase during calendar year ’08 since it was just 1.5% in January and 3% in July. But since people get paid weekly and not by the fiscal year, isn’t it really 3% now and 3% later so town workers are really getting a 6% raise…and around and around for over an hour.

Understandably, many in the audience were confused. Perhaps someone could have stood up and made the point that we were looking to spend a very small sum of money—about the cost of a family car—so that the guys who dig ditches and keep our water flowing and electricity running could get paid another $17 per week (and I do not exempt myself from that criticism. I could have made the point and did not). But instead, we squabbled over whether or not the increase was 1.5% or 3% or 4.5% or 6%.

The evening was further lengthened by about a half hour when we got to the final article of the Special Town Meeting and organizers realized that the paper ballots required for this particular question had not been distributed when we signed in, so the gymnasium was cleared and all 175 or so of us had to line up and sign in once again to get our ballots.

The most interesting dynamic to part one of the miniseries that has become Town Meeting was the significant level of distrust many townspeople and the personnel board have toward the Board of Selectmen. For reasons I don’t understand, the personnel board opposed both the merit pay raise and the creation of a part-time Human Resources position, which was defeated around 11:05 last night. It seems to me that the personnel board would be working on behalf of workers who would benefit from both merit pay increases and a professional dedicated to HR issues, but the personnel board opposed both. Further, there was a general thread among many of those who spoke that “something else is going on” with the Selectmen and that they were somehow “trying to sneak one in” with the changes they hoped to make in the personnel area.

I haven’t seen it, but I guess I’ll get another four or more hours of evidence tonight.

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