SHIRLEY -- Conservation Commission Chairman Nancy Askin came before selectmen seeking to trade a part-time secretarial job for more conservation agent hours.

After lengthy discussion, selectmen agreed.

Rather than replace the secretary, who resigned awhile ago, Askin proposed eliminating the 15-hour per week clerical job and ceding some of those hours to the conservation agent's position, upping it from 12 to 19 hours per week.

That's still below the cut-off for town benefits, she said, and the Personnel Board approves of the idea.

With computers, there are fewer secretarial duties, but 12 hours per week for the Conservation Agent isn't enough to get everything done, Askin said. "The model has changed," she said. "We're looking to run the office more efficiently."

The minimal hours may explain why the agent's position is opening up again and has changed hands so often in recent years. Now, the commission has a qualified, experienced professional lined up for the job and wants to make an offer worth taking.

The trade-off makes sense for several reasons, Askin continued. Residual clerical tasks would be rolled into the agent's job description and, more importantly, extended hours would provide time to tackle unfinished "land management" business, from site visits to preparing state reports to oversight of Longley Acres conservation area, which Askin said consumes a hefty chunk of time.

"So the duties would be combined?" Chairman Andy Deveau asked.

Askin said yes, and the net cost to the town is actually less for one job versus two. "We'd like the option of a raise" in salary, if things work out well, she added.

Deveau agreed it was a good idea to drop the secretarial slot to add administrative hours. "Conservation is important to this town," he said.

"It does make sense," said Selectman Kendra Dumont. But with state budget cuts looming, she was worried that the new position might not be sustainable, even this year.

But Deveau characterized it as a "win/win" anyway. "I support it, cuts or not," he said.

Swain shared Dumont's reservations. "I have deep concerns" about the pending "9-C' state cuts, he said. "We built our budget this year on money we assumed we'd get but may not." So it might not be prudent to extend the conservation agent's hours at this time, he said. "I don't want to hire someone now and ... cut their hours later."

But Askin said the net balance is on the town's side. "We have no secretary now," she pointed out. "Those hours are gone. "

The current agent has given his notice but has stayed on so a replacement could be hired and trained, but he's basically on borrowed time. "All we want is someone really good to do a necessary job," she said. "But 12 hours is not enough."

"I'll give you the 19 hours, but you tell me where we get the $54,000," Swain said, citing the annual pay for the agent's position on the wage and salary grid. Facing a $45 million shortage in its budget, the state is going to make cuts, he said. "And so are we."

"How busy are you from now to January?" Swain asked Askin. "Can we live with 12 hours until then?"

Askin said the commission must close out pending orders of conditions, "chase down" applicants who have not complied and would like to finish up the state-mandated Open Space and Recreation Plan, with a professional on board to oversee the process.

"Even in a slow period, there are things that don't get done," she said.

David Bortell urged the selectmen to approve the plan as presented. Four agents had passed through during his tenure on the Conservation Commission, he said, and now comes the opportunity to hire someone "extremely qualified ... to take on our projects."

"We're in competition with towns that pay a lot more," he said.

No question there's work to do, including items that "just pop up," such as a Boy Scout bridge-building project and handicap access issues. "Come spring," the agent will have an even heftier workload, Bortell said.

"This is the way to go and it's within our budget," he concluded. At least for now. "If things change, we can adjust."

Selectmen voted two to one in favor of the Conservation Commission's request. Deveau and Dumont said yes, but Swain held out, standing by his earlier statement.

Deveau said he's aware the picture could change. "I know that when the 9-Cs come in, anything can happen," he said.

With selectmen's blessing, the next step would be to hire the prospective agent, a trained hydrologist who serves on the Groton Conservation Commission.

Swain said, "She has an outstanding resume."