AYER -- The Finance Committee approved clerical-only assistance for Tax Collector John Canney on Jan. 23.
The night before, selectmen had voted 3-2 to approve a reserve fund transfer honoring Canney's request for up to 16 weeks' pay for a full-time, fully-trained and bonded temporary assistant to cover for Assistant Tax Collector Roberta Chase, who is out on extended medical leave.
A fully trained employee must be paid at Chases' $20.27 per-hour pay rate, explained Canney. The total of $12,972 for the 16 weeks of fully-trained employee coverage would not cover the added costs of benefits and any following unemployment claim.
In the interim, Ayer Treasurer Stephanie Gintner, who carries the requisite bonding and is trained on the applicable financial software system, has been volunteering available hours in the collector's office. The Gintner gap coverage approach was impact bargained a month ago between Canney and the Ayer Town Hall clerical union AFSCME Local 93.
"While Stephanie's been helpful, she can only give us the hours she has," said Canney. "If something unforeseen comes up in her office, what are we going to do? We're a $20 million institution; we ought to act like a business."
Chase has been out for 10 weeks and is projected to be out another nine weeks. In full swing, Canney, who is both tax collector and town clerk, Chase and Assistant Clerk Lauri Fritz cover for one another on many tasks. However, Canney explained collection functions must be performed by a bonded employee.
Canney said he wanted up to 16 weeks of coverage in case Chase's return is delayed, noting Chase has 40 weeks of accumulated sick leave. Canney said any temp hire would be warned that the job would terminate upon Chase's return.
Once transferred, the requested money cannot be returned to the town's stabilization fund if not spent by the collector's office, said Finance Committee Chair Scott Houde. Houde also noted that reserve fund transfers are only granted when an account is otherwise exhausted, yet $20,000 still remains in Canney's budget for Chase's salary.
With Chase out since November, Finance Committee member Brian Muldoon said, "I really think you should have started putting together the paperwork months ago." Canney said he only learned of Chase's extended leave request on Jan. 9. Since then, Canney said he's worked with the union, the town attorney and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand to search for a solution.
Canney said, "It doesn't work as quickly as in the private sector."
"In the private sector, they just have everyone else in the office cover," said Houde.
"We've been making a good-faith effort," said Canney. "You don't know the depth of the situation. Things take time."
Capital Planning Committee Chairwoman Mary Spinner suggested a clerical hire from a temporary agency. "Even though you pay double the hourly rate, you get someone say for four weeks but with no unemployment or benefits."
Selectman Pauline Conley noted Canney agreed to the temporary arrangement with Gintner with the union. Any other approach "would be a reopening of all that process to bring on someone in a temporary capacity."
"Yes, I agreed to it," said Canney. "But I have no control over the number of hours Stephanie can give." Houde said he'd checked with Gintner, who was "fully happy" to continue lending support to the collector's office.
Pattenden said he was "appalled at the situation. If a person is missing and needed, we ought to have a replacement for them." To Houde, Pattenden said, "The bottom line is, if you were out, the vice chairman would take over."
Pattenden said a temporary clerical hire "seems to be a very valid thing to do," said Pattenden. "Absent that, then I'd go along with John's request and allow him to hire somebody on a temp basis." Sensing he was alone in that approach, Pattenden offered, "That may not be the official point of view, but it's sure as heck mine."
"You've got $19,000 in your budget. You could have gotten someone in here," said Muldoon. "We're just looking at different ways to do it ... I'd start tomorrow getting someone because hiring someone is probably a month away."
"I'm going to run through that money awfully quickly" by hiring a temp and paying Chase, said Canney. "I'm here tonight because I don't like to create controversy. I didn't want to use the money and later be told 'you used all that money and you didn't consult us.'"
If he can spend down the account and then return for a reserve fund transfer, "then that's what I'm going to do," said Canney. "Because that's what's needed to keep my office running and that's what's fair and that's what the town's people would want."
"You have every right to do that," said Houde, who warned that he'd later reject any reserve fund transfers if they were sparked by "frivolous" spending.
Spinner suggested that high school students could provide clerical assistance, too. Pattenden wondered if the senior tax abatement program could put a qualified town senior citizen in the collector's office on a short-term basis. Conley suggested otherwise -- that Canney and Gintner are both elected, trained and bonded to perform the duties of their offices.
"There's no time limitation on how many hours they work," said Conley. "I'm not suggesting anyone work 100 hours, but if those two individuals focused on the tax collection and data-entry issues then the other work, like mailings, postal metering, help for the assistant clerk, can be accommodated through the other suggestions made."
"That's a product of the elected position," said Conley. "Those are harsh words but I don't feel bad saying them."
"I'll be honest, John," said Houde. "Those are my feelings coming into this meeting. I have a responsibility coming into my job and if it takes 50 or 60 hours, so be it. You're an elected official."
Houde said he'd support only a clerical assistant for 10 and not 16 weeks at this point in time, "then we can look at a more holistic solution.
The board agreed, 4-1, with Pattenden opposing the motion. The committee added that the clerical temp worker would still be subject to impact bargaining with the union.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.