SHIRLEY -- A discussion item on the Planning Board agenda last Wednesday night targeted "policies and procedures of the Planning Administrator going forward."

Apparently, the board had "questions and concerns" about the Personnel Board's recently updated, selectmen-approved manual, which spells out rules and responsibilities for all town employees.

Personnel Board member Holly Haase attended the March 5 meeting and presumably would have provided input if asked. But as it turned out, the issue didn't come up.

The board instead discussed a more pressing concern.

The part-time administrator's hours -- cut from 30 to 20 hours per week five years ago during a budget squeeze -- have been slated for the ax again, this time reducing time on the job to 15 hours per week and sliding the position off the health insurance eligibility rolls. Town employees must work at least 19 hours per week to qualify for benefits under the town's insurance policy.

Anna MacDonald, the Planning Board Administrator then and now, has 30 years of experience as a paralegal and office manager and also volunteers at Town Hall in Pepperell, where she lives.

Her duties in Shirley include grant-writing, drafting Planning Board decisions, assisting with site plan reviews, posting notices for hearings and reviewing permit applications that come before the board.

Currently, she also serves as chairman of the Master Plan Committee, a sub-group of the Planning Board tasked with updating the town's 10-year Master Plan.

But apparently the decision to further shrink the position the board has lobbied unsuccessfully to restore for some time had nothing to do with MacDonald's resume or her track record. It's all about the budget, which is $300,000 in the red this year.

At the recent meeting, Chairman Jonathan Greeno said the administrator's hours were on the chopping block again.

"I was told today by the town administrator that they (Finance Team) discussed changing our administrator's hours. They want to reduce (the job) to 15 hours a week," he said, making it an "unbenefitted position."

"Why don't they just lay me off?" MacDonald said, "It's not fair!"

Noting that she secured $20,000 in grants for the board this year, she said: "That's more than I make in a year!"

Greeno said the board won't take the cut sitting down and he plans to speak against it on Town Meeting floor.

Things have been slow lately in terms of development, but with spring just two weeks off and as the economy improves, the housing market is likely to pick up. "Once a subdivision plan is dropped into our laps," there's a set time to complete the work, he said. Otherwise, the developer's plan is approved "by right."

Haase reminded him of the deficit.

"I understand about the money," Greeno responded. But in his view, the Planning Board is one of the departments that's been "cut to the bone" while others are not.

One of the two options Town Administrator Patrice Garvin presented to selectmen to address the deficit included staff reductions and although two of the three members leaned that way, the board has not yet voted its preference. The Finance Committee discussed the options and favors the reductions, Chairman Mike Swanton said at a recent joint session, but his board hadn't taken a "formal vote" yet, either.