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Kenyon: Running on Empty

Norwich is running out of money. What next? Bill Gates on food stamps?

Last week, Town Clerk Bonnie Munday approached the Selectboard about allocating more money to get her office through the current fiscal year, which doesn’t end until June 30. With seven months to go, Munday has already used roughly $9,000 of the $12,000 that Town Manager Neil Fulton and the Selectboard allotted her for part-time help.

Munday, who was first elected in 1995, went to the board after getting rebuffed by Fulton, who gave her the old “I’m-not-a-bank-and-you-need-to-learn-to-live-within-your-means speech.”

“A budget is a budget,” Fulton told me. “I’ve told (Munday and town department heads) once that’s spent, you have no authorization to spend more money.”

So far, the Selectboard hasn’t seemed eager to open the town’s checkbook, either. “Neil doesn’t have a drawer full of money that he can pass out to department heads when they go over budget,” Selectman Ed Childs, a retired banker, told me yesterday.

But it’s not like Munday used the town credit card for a shopping spree at the Powerhouse Mall. In late August, she underwent joint replacement surgery in her hand and has been under doctor’s orders to scale back her work hours. Rather than shut down the office for much of the fall, Munday figured it would be best to have Judy Trussell, her assistant, fill in. (In this space last Sunday, I wrote about Trussell and her young son going without health insurance because Norwich doesn’t consider her a full-time employee.)

Munday told me that she’s tried to stick to the budget, but she has “no buffer for any emergencies.”

I called Dorset Town Clerk Sandra Pinsonault, president of the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association, to get her take. Pinsonault said it seems that Munday was left with little choice other than to ask town officials for more money. “A budget is only a working document,” Pinsonault said. “Some line items get overspent, some are underspent. This was an unforeseen circumstance.”

And I’m not buying Norwich officials’ cry of poverty. In July, Fulton’s annual salary jumped from $77,250 to $95,000. In addition to the 23 percent pay increase, the Selectboard gave Fulton $11,000 in lieu of health insurance. (After becoming town manager last year, Fulton indicated that he preferred not to participate in the town’s health insurance plan and wanted to keep the policy that he was already buying for himself and his wife, an attorney.)

Last month, following a regional salary survey that the town paid for, Fulton recommended pay raises of between $9,000 and $15,000 for three of his department heads, all of who earn $45,000 or more. The raises, if approved by the Selectboard, will go into effect on July 1.

In theory, Munday, who earns an annual salary of $46,420 for working full-time, could get by without additional funds to pay for office help. It would just require her to work five days a week, eight hours a day for a stretch of several months on her own, or close for some hours.

With Town Meeting and the dog licensing deadline (In Norwich, that involves about 650 dogs.) on the horizon, Munday’s office is approaching its busy season, and I’m guessing residents might not want to wait in line.

The friction that has cropped up between Munday and other officials in town is not unique to Norwich, said Pinsonault. Town clerks across the state are being asked by selectboards and town managers to do more with less. “I think it’s due to a lack of knowing everything we have to do in our offices,” said Pinsonault.

I don’t think the issue in Norwich is about money as much as it is about control. Town clerks are elected by voters. But at budget time, they find themselves answering to town managers and selectboards. “The one power that they have over the (town clerk’s office) is the budget,” said Pinsonault.

Without hiring and firing power over Munday, I imagine it’s tougher for Fulton and the Selectboard to get her to fall in line when it’s time to create a budget or stay mum when not everything goes according to the plan.

Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley, Childs and Fulton all told me that they hope an agreement can be reached with Munday in the next week or so. Last Friday, Fulton met with her to talk about additional funding. It would require shifting money from other parts of the town’s $4 million budget. And even then she might not get all that she wants, he said. “I recognize that her surgery was an event that wasn’t planned,” Fulton said. “But we’re bound by the budget. My goal is to run an economic, efficient town government.”

Just in case a deal can’t be worked out, Munday was at the town’s transfer station on Saturday, asking residents to sign a petition that would allow voters to decide the issue at a special Town Meeting. “I’m trying very hard for it not to get to that point,” she said.

In her petition, Munday requests $25,000. She figures that would be enough to pay for the additional hours she needs from Trussell, her assistant, to keep the office running smoothly five days a week. The request would also cover the cost of Trussell’s benefits, including health insurance.

What a win-win idea. The Town Clerk’s office could operate as usual, and Norwich residents could sleep easier knowing they have done the right thing.