CHESTER – Thanks to a petitioned warrant article spearheaded by members of the budget committee, voters at Town Meeting in May will have a chance to weigh in on whether they think Chester is ready for a town administrator.
The article was recently received by the selectmen, and members weighed in with mixed reactions at their Thursday, April 10 meeting.
While selectman Jack Cannon was in favor of the article, having led a similar effort a few years ago, chair Steph Landau was forcefully against it, saying it was a slap in the face to the board.
Cannon said Landau should not view it that way, and noted the need for a full-time eye on town business was becoming a necessity.
Contacted after the meeting, budget committee members Rhonda Lamphere and Chris Hadik weighed in on the various merits of a new hire. While the article originated within the committee, it received fairly wide town support with 60 signatures, including three selectmen, Cannon, Rich LeBlanc and Joe Castricone.
LeBlanc, however, voted against recommending the article April 10. Castricone was not in attendance.
Hadik said the town was a $4 million operation these days and as such it needed a full-time watch. He said that as a budget committee member, he thinks a closer watch on town finances and operations would ultimately save the taxpayers money, more than enough to pay for the position he surmised.
Hadik added that he did not blame the selectmen for not being able to keep the kind of watch on the town that he thinks is needed, as they were primarily people with full-time responsibilities and jobs and could only reasonably pay attention to town business on a part-time basis.
It was an argument that Cannon also floated. “I don’t take it personally,” Cannon told Landau. “It’s 2014 and we’re a five-member, part-time board with varying degrees of involvement and who can’t guarantee a high degree of day-to-day involvement.”
Cannon added that the board should step away from the day-to-day responsibilities and function more like an executive board. A full-time administrator would also benefit the employees, he said, from creating specialized and measurable work goals to providing competent job review to day-to-day needs.
Lamphere echoed that idea in her statements. She said the town needs someone in town hall to whom employees report. She noted that sometimes the selectmen have been unaware of things, such as when employees are on vacation.
Lamphere also said that an administrator would benefit the town in project completion. She pointed to a lagged post office paint project and the roof extension work for the transfer station that voters approved last May as prime examples of how the town needs full-time follow-up on projects. This person would be someone with a college degree who could not only write Requests for Proposals, but could research grants and make sure work was followed through.
Hadik said it would provide needed continuity on projects and from board to board as well. He made the analogy of a ship. The town’s course would still be charted by the selectmen but a town administrator would act like the pilot.
The warrant article describes the position this way: “The Town Administrator will report directly to the Board of Selectmen and oversee the management and implementation of policies and procedures, and the administration of all town affairs pursuant to the directives of a simple majority of the Board of Selectmen. The Town Administrator will be responsible for identifying town requirements for capital improvements, building maintenance and repair, equipment maintenance repair and replacement needs as directed by the Board of Selectman. The Town Administrator will provide other services, duties and responsibilities to be described in a job description created by the Board of Selectmen.”
The town administrator would still be directed by selectmen majority, an issue that prompted Landau to say the position was redundant. He argued that the selectmen had been doing a good job of getting projects completed and that delay was often the result of indecision by board members, an issue he said would not be solved with an administrator.
“All this does is create one more layer of employees that we’re paying for,” said Landau. He questioned whether there would be 40 hours of work per week for an administrator to handle. And he said it was foolish to think that an administrator would provide better service than the selectmen currently do.
“It’s a huge slap in the face,” Landau added.
LeBlanc said he knew there was concern around town about projects not being finished in a timely fashion but he was reconsidering the position, given the cost of the benefits package. “Where’d they get this number?” he asked.
The warrant article as presented gives an annual salary of $75,000 plus benefits of $41,482. The benefits were calculated on the cost of a family plan offered by the selectmen-chosen health insurance plan plus calculated figures for state retirement and other expenses. The number may be less if the eventual hire did not take a full family plan, the most expensive offered.
The salary number was generated, according to Lamphere and Hadik, through a survey of similar sized towns and with help from Local Government Center information.
The article gives a six-month timeline for a candidate to be found by a search committee and chosen by the selectmen; thus the first year cost would be for only the last six months of the year.
Hadik said the matter would come down to whether the townspeople think Chester is ready for an administrator. Lamphere noted that similar sized surrounding towns have had such positions for years.
“If nothing else, this brings it up for discussion,” said Hadik. “But at some point it’s inevitable. A $4 million business needs daily oversight.”