Fulton Calls Raise Offer ‘Unacceptable’

Norwich Town Manager Seeks Raise in Line With Recent Study

Town Manager Neil Fulton called his salary increase “unacceptable” Wednesday night after Selectboard members suggested a 2.4 percent increase.

“I have worked diligently to work for the Selectboard over the last year, and I think you’ve been one of the most productive Selectboards,” Fulton said at the meeting. “I think that’s you saying you think my performance is inadequate.”

The board voted 3-2 in favor of the 2.4 percent increase, which will make Fulton’s salary $97,280.

In an interview on Thursday, Fulton said he was looking for $614 more, which would place him on the grade and step plan that was recommended for him by Condrey & Associates, a company that the town hired to do a compensation study for town employees.

“If I’m asking employees to be on the grade and step plan, then I would expect the Selectboard would give me the same consideration so I can demonstrate that we’re all being treated the same,” Fulton said in an interview.

When Fulton was hired in April, he was given a 23 percent raise from $77,250 to $95,000. At the time, he told the Valley News that he asked for the raise because he wants Norwich to offer an attractive salary for future candidates.

Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley said the 2.4 percent raise offered Wednesday wasn’t a negative comment on Fulton’s performance.

“I felt you brought an extremely large amount of skill to the town, but we stretched to pay you the salary that we paid you,” Ashley said. “And you were worth it.”

The Selectboard also took steps Wednesday to reverse decisions it previously made about the communication tower and on $87,000 worth of budget increases.

Board members got cold feet when it came time to adopt a $4.1 million budget when they saw that the tax increase would be nearly 11 percent without monetary articles.

At a December meeting, the board decided to increase an assistant town clerk’s hours from 20 to 40, which added $27,619 to the budget. An additional $9,475 was added to the town clerk’s salary and $21,000 was allocated to record preservation, as well as other increases.

Altogether, the Selectboard was facing a budget that was $101,848 more than the current budget — a 2.54 percent increase.

The Selectboard was encouraged to decrease the budget after Nate Stearns, chairman of the Norwich Finance Committee, said that many members of the committee voted against the budget.

The committee questioned whether the level of services provided by the town was too high. There was also unease about how the raises were handled, especially the larger raises for department heads. (The planning, finance and recreation directors could get raises of 18 percent, 23 percent and 31 percent, respectively, based on the compensation study.)

“There was nausea at the projected 11 percent increase to the town tax rate absent of the town articles. That number just seems too big and unsustainable,” Stearns said.

Selectman Keith Moran said he was happy to hear that the Finance Committee voted against the budget because it confirmed his feelings. While he agreed that items were added to the budget in December that were necessary, he felt that more cuts could be made throughout the budget.

So, for two and a half hours, the Selectboard made a fruitless effort to find $113,000 worth of cuts. The five board members eventually agreed on a few stipulations that would be taken up at a special meeting next week.

When Ashley asked Fulton if he understood what the board was asking him to do, Fulton said, “I haven’t gotten a clue.”

The Selectboard asked Fulton to bring the tax increase down to 4 percent or less and do so by removing the $27,619 allocated for the assistant town clerk’s full-time salary as an article outside of the budget that residents will vote on separately. Fulton was also told to lower the department head salary increases to save about $18,000 and remove $12,000 from record preservation.

Additionally, Fulton was asked to find another $50,000 in cuts within the budget.

“Do you want me to put less sand on the road? Less gravel?” Fulton said. “I think I know the budget as well as anyone in this room, and if I cut $50,000, I think we will see a reduction in services. If that’s what the Selectboard wants, I’m fine with it, but I think you should take responsibility for it.”

The Selectboard agreed and said it would come to the next meeting with suggestions about how to cut $50,000.

When the board finished its budget discussion, it was after 9 p.m., and the room was almost empty except for a handful of people who had stayed to talk about the communication tower on New Boston Road.

At the beginning of the meeting, the board had a bit of deja vu as more than 20 people sat in the audience to encourage the it to include an article on the Town Meeting ballot that would allocate $325,000 for a communication tower, essentially ending ties with VTel.

Last fall, the Selectboard agreed to allow VTel to build, pay for and own the 180-foot tower on New Boston Road. The town would then use it for police, fire and public works radio communication. Residents have been vocal about their disapproval of the VTel tower, and even gathered a petition with 150 signatures last fall. But the Selectboard did not waver — until last night.

Fulton will write language for an article and present it to the Selectboard at a Jan. 16 meeting. The board will continue the budget conversation at that time.

The board spent less than 10 minutes discussing the tower and when the conversation was over, Ashley said, “Alright, that was easy.”

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.