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Raises Get Initial OK In Norwich

The Selectboard showed appreciation for town employees last night by offering preliminary support for large salary increases and granting the town clerk a full-time assistant — at least for now.

The salaries of Norwich employees have been a hot topic this budget season, with the planning, finance and recreation directors in line for raises of 18 percent, 23 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Other employees would also see raises.

The salary adjustments are Town Manager Neil Fulton’s attempt to bring pay equity among town employees. The town hired Condrey & Associates to evaluate employees, examine pay rates in other towns and recommend pay scales for each grade of employee.

The study showed the town’s union employees, such as police officers, were being paid at a fair level, but that nonunion employees, such as the recreation director, were paid less than others in the region. Last night, however, some members of the board expressed skepticism that employees were so significantly underpaid.

“I understand studies, but I’m finding it very difficult supporting some very large, strong raises,” Selectwoman Linda Cook said.

Most of the attendees at last night’s meeting were town employees, and when Cook finished talking, Planning Director Phil Dechert whispered from the back of the room, “She’s only one vote.”

“Yes, Phil, I am only one vote,” Cook replied. “I take offense to that.”

Selectman Keith Moran said he’s suspicious about the validity of the salary report because Norwich was being compared to larger communities.

“If you compare us just to the communities that we mirror in population, we are in the ballpark already,” Moran said. “I agree that this group is out of sync in terms of other employees in town, but I don’t know what to do about it.”

Ultimately, a divided board expressed support for increased salaries in a nonbinding straw poll. Cook and Moran opposed the raises, and Christopher Ashley, Ed Childs and Steve Flanders voiced support.

Ashley, the board chairman, made the point that whether board members agreed with the study or not, its obvious that the salaries are low.

“We have an opportunity this year to make some adjustments that are years behind being made,” Ashley said.

After the Selectboard voted in favor of keeping the proposed raises in the budget, Ashley stressed that the topic could come back up for discussion at the public hearing.

The tension settled during the rest of the meeting, as board members agreed to increase the salary for the town clerk and allowing her assistant to be full time.

Town Clerk Bonnie Munday had asked for an increase from 12 hours to 32 hours, but Fulton had only budgeted an increase to 20 hours.

Part of the reason Munday asked for the additional hours is because she underwent joint replacement surgery in her hand this summer and has had to scale back on hours, which means that the assistant town clerk has been working an average of 26.3 hours a week. Munday stressed the need for an assistant because when Munday is sick, the office has to close.

The Selectboard came to a consensus to increase the assistant town clerk’s hours to 40 hours a week for the next fiscal year.

But those hours won’t go into effect until July 1, and Munday needs additional help now as she recovers. The assistant’s overtime has caused the $12,420 budget for the position to run almost dry with only $1,622 left to get the department through the rest of the fiscal year.

To solve that problem, the board unanimously voted to allow the assistant town clerk to work 40 hours starting Jan. 1.

The additional hours will cost the town $23,831 and Fulton said it would be presented to voters as a warrant article in March.

“This will allow me to catch up, stay caught up and deal with the items coming up in the future much more efficiently,” Munday said.

In addition, the board would like to increase the town clerk’s salary by $8,411 because she does work for the town that is not required by statute.

The Selectboard also agreed to increase funding for record restoration by $21,000 and to put $1,000 toward a citizen’s assistance fund.

A public hearing will be held on Jan. 9, and then the Selectboard will finalize and adopt a budget for Town Meeting.

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