GROTON -- In the run up to fall town meeting, the Finance Committee began review of the financial impact of spending articles listed in the warrant.
Among them is a measure seeking $236,000 in additional funds to cover a shortfall in the town's fiscal 2014 operating budget.
Almost immediately, town manager Mark Haddad ran into trouble. He was defending his request for extra funding to pay for a change in status for one of two part-time employees in the Town Clerk's Office and making a part-time custodian position full-time.
In the first instance, Haddad wished to increase the hours of one of two part-time employees in the Town Clerk's Office from 19 to 20.
Cost for increased hours, said Haddad, would come to $16,000 a year.
According to Haddad, the situation was not fair that one part-timer should have 20 hours and all the benefits that go with them and the other was stuck at 19 hours, just below the threshold when benefits kick in.
Insisting that the issue should be approached with cool heads and not emotion, FinCom Chairman Jay Prager said that if the town grants this one person the extra time to qualify for benefits including insurance, sick and vacation days, and perhaps retirement, then soon, every other part-time employee in town will be asking for the same thing.
"You are going to expose the town to two benefits packages for a total of only 40 hours a week (worked)," Prager told Haddad. "I don't get it."
Prager and Haddad also disagreed on the town manager's request to convert a part-time custodian position to full-time, the extra hours needed due to an increased workload with the new Center Fire Station due to come online in the coming year.
But again, Prager wondered why the town needed to incur the costs of paying the benefits that came with a full-time position when it could simply hire a second part-timer with no benefits.
"I'm concerned about the long-term costs for the town," explained Prager.
In his defense, Haddad replied that the current custodian is a good worker, reliable and experienced and deserving of the upgrade in hours.
The balance of the $236,000 would cover overruns in the Fire Department, public buildings, Council on Aging, senior van and a planned reopening of Sargisson Beach by a newly established Sargisson Beach Committee.
Also included in the spending measure is money for the public library including a request for $3,000 to give the new library director an increase in her salary as part of hiring negotiations.
In a separate article, Haddad explained that the Police Department had expected to seek funds for the purchase of two new cruisers but that request changed following a recent accident in which one of its current automobiles was totaled.
Instead, the department will now seek the purchase of only one unmarked car at a cost of $30,000 and a new cruiser to replace the one that was wrecked for which the town would only need to pay $18,000. The balance of $22,000 would be supplied by the insurance company that covered the damaged vehicle.
Finally, from the town's free cash account, Haddad requested an appropriation of $50,000 to go toward various expenditures related to the town's parks and common areas.
The FinCom also reviewed a trio of warrant articles that seek to address the availability of water for firefighting purposes in the Lost Lake neighborhoods.
The problem was highlighted following a fire that took place last June on Boat House Road.
There, confusion over the operation of a hydrassist valve interfered with the flow of water to a relay pump needed to force the water uphill; the need to switch relay pumps also caused delay in delivering water to the hoses; and because water had to be drawn uphill against the pull of gravity, the hose going down the opposite side of the hill to the site of the fire sometimes went empty until enough water could be drawn over the crest.
The problems were serious enough to prompt the creation of a committee to review the incident and make recommendations. They included the installation of fire cisterns and the extension of water mains into areas of the Lost Lake neighborhood where there are not any currently.
Separated into three articles, the total amount being sought to pay for design of a new fire protection resource system and putting the project out to bid comes to $103,400.
If the system were to be approved by a future town meeting, estimated cost of building the new system would come to $1.3 million and a 10-year bond paid at least in part through betterment fees.
"The project needs to be looked at in terms of how it gets paid," mused Prager, mindful of the recent defeat of a similar attempt to bring wastewater services to the same neighborhoods.
FinCom's Steve Webber asked if a water tank or tower was considered by the committee instead of buried lines.
That would be more expensive, assured water superintendent Thomas Orcutt who attended the committee's Sept. 10 meeting along with Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait.
What about saving time and money by creating a dual system of water delivery, suggested Webber. One for drinking water and the other for firefighting purposes?
It was something to think about, he was told, if regulations preventing burying lines in a single trench do not prevent such a plan.
"I think that this is a very rational plan but you need to see if there are other alternatives," said Prager of the firefighting proposal.
A public hearing on the warrant articles is scheduled to be held by the Board of Selectmen on Sept. 16 following which the FinCom is expected to continue its review of the spending measures.