AYER - The log jam between the Ayer selectmen, Finance Committee and Tax Collector John Canney broke on Feb. 13 with a FinCom vote to fund 6 weeks' worth of temporary, full time coverage for the assistant tax collector who is out on extended sick leave. The post has been vacant since late Nov.

Treasurer Stephanie Gintner, Canney and the secretarial union AFSCME Local 93 agreed on Dec. 5 that Gintner could lend Canney a hand, since she's also bonded and insured to handle incoming payments. On Jan. 22, Canney won 3-2 selectmen approval for 16 weeks' worth of temporary professional coverage. The Finance Committee bucked that approach on Jan. 23on a 4-1 vote, calling for less expensive clerical assistance in the role.

Appearing before the Ayer Finance Committee on Feb. 13 were Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, left, Ayer Town Clerk and Tax Collector John Canney and
Appearing before the Ayer Finance Committee on Feb. 13 were Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, left, Ayer Town Clerk and Tax Collector John Canney and Ayer selectman Chairman Jim Fay. (Nashoba Publishing/Mary Arata)

The meeting got off to a rocky start, as FinCom Chair Scott Houde confronted Canney over Canney's decision to hold off on sending nearly 7,000 auto excise tax bills. "You realize we're a cash basis business?" said Houde.

Canney said with 6,000 quarterly tax bills, 500 dog licenses, and 3,000 census forms, he was already operating short-handed in trying to deal with the influx of mail, payments and correspondence flowing through his office. Canney also said the auto excise tax bills do not have to be mailed by a specific date.

Canney has argued that his combined Tax Collector and Town Clerk functions require three hands on deck - himself, and his two assistants, "I'm trying to restore my office."

The assistant collector has been out since November and has accumulated some 40 weeks' worth of sick leave.

"Personally, how many hours are you working?" asked Houde.

"I don't keep a record of it," answered Canney. "I just come in and do the work."

Houde retorted, "I've been in over the past 2 weeks at 5:30 or so and it's been an absolute ghost town - your office as well."

Committee member Michael Pattenden stated that he's seen Canney and his assistant clerk working into the evening hours. On one night, Pattenden said there was $630,000 worth of checks collected in that day's mail.

"I personally feel that another person is necessary under the circumstances," said Pattenden. "If the fire or police departments or selectmen's office was suddenly short half of its people, I can't help thinking we'd have taken care of this by now. I'm getting a tiny bit irritated that it taking so long to do something so logical."

"Resolution is needed," said Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. "I say that in the best interest of the taxpayers of Ayer."

Pontbriand suggested a 6 week temporary hire (worth $4,864.80) for the assistant collector role, with a re-assessment of where the department stands on March 29. Pontbriand also reminded that the new post would still need to be impact bargained with the clerical union. The Finance Committee unanimously agreed to follow the recommendation on a 5-0 vote.

Canney confirmed he's found an in-town woman retiree who possesses the required finance software experience for the temporary post. The woman previously worked for the Town of Acton for 27 years. Canney said the woman would be hired with the caveat that she could be let go when the ailing assistant collector returns.

Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.