Proposed change provokes controversy
by Margo Avakian
Jun 21, 2012 | 738 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HALIFAX- The selectboard asked road crew members for their comments on a proposal to change from a 45-hour work week to a 40-hour week, at least during the summer. And they got comments, largely negative.

As board chair Lewis Sumner made clear at the last meeting, the board is not seeking to cut crew members’ pay; the object is to get a handle on how much overtime is need-driven, as opposed to policy-driven. The town has consistently gone over budget on employee pay; more accurate knowledge of how many hours are required to do the work could assist the board in budgeting more realistically.

Base hourly pay for the Halifax crew is, as Earl Holtz put it, “at the bottom” of area pay rates. Ideally, the board would like to raise base pay while reducing the number of hours worked. But most crew members, and some other residents present, perceived the proposed move as an effort to cut costs at their expense. This view persisted despite repeated statements to the contrary from all three board members.

Part of the problem is that crew members feel that their compensation has already been nibbled away at. Highway supervisor Bradley Rafus noted that a cost of living increase was wiped out by new insurance costs, for example. Rafus said that crew compensation “works out to be the same as two years ago. And things are not cheaper than they were two years ago.” Several commenters felt that the crew’s extraordinary efforts in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene were being discounted, in a sort of “no good deed goes unpunished” scenario.

Another problem is that, as crew mechanic Keith Stone informed the board, the crew has heard talk that a decision to cut their pay “is a done deal.” The board is on record that no change will be made without consulting the crew. He compared the highway budget to the school budget, asking why it is always the road crew that is targeted for cuts or criticism. The selectboard has no say at all in the school budget, which is proposed by the school board and voted on at town meeting.

Some residents have criticized the current hours/pay policy, calling it “mandatory overtime.” Board member Edee Edwards observed that she gets calls from irate taxpayers who see some work as unnecessary, asking if it is only being done “for the overtime.” Stone riposted with an anecdote of one angry resident complaining that his road hadn’t yet been plowed, and another in the same area complaining after it was plowed that it shouldn’t have been.

Greg Marguet, who favored the proposed change, also misunderstood it as a cost-cutting measure, proposing ways to better spend the “savings.” Marguet would like to see part-time workers hired from within the town to make use of “idle equipment” during the crew’s “days off.” Edwards was tart in her objection to any insinuation that the crew is not performing admirably, or that needed work is not being done. Again, she attempted to correct the idea the board wants to cut pay.

Edwards noted that there are a lot of complexities and uncertainties involved in the proposal, and that it involves “risk for the workers and risk for the town.” She said that average overtime in a year with no major emergencies could be conservatively estimated at 230 hours a year. In the unlikely event that overtime in a given year fell below that figure, the crew could suffer a loss; in a year when a lot of overtime is necessary, the town could end up paying a lot more than under the current arrangement. Edwards suggested a “one time carry-through payment” as a bridge to budgeting for a higher base pay rate. No specific figures were given as crew members are paid at different rates.

Joseph Tamburrino, who repeatedly asked for assurance that crew pay would be “equal to or better than” it is currently, suggested to Edwards, “You don’t have a plan; you have an idea. You need a written plan, with figures.”

“I do have a plan,” Edwards responded. “I do have figures. But it seems no one wants to hear them.”

Board members made it clear that they do not intend to force the change on the crew. But neither are they ready to drop the matter without further efforts to correct misapprehensions. For now, they agreed to table the discussion.

In other business, the board opened bids on fuel, sand, chloride, and roadside mowing. The only discussion was on the sand bids; Corse Excavating offered a slightly lower price than Cersossimo, but Rafus felt that was offset by the more convenient location of Cersossimo’s pit and his familiarity with the material from that pit. The board voted to back Rafus’ preference. They also voted to hold off on awarding the mowing job while they investigate the desirability of renting a sickle bar mower for a month and having the work done by the road crew.

Tamburrino reported that a pre-bid meeting for the Reed Hill bridge will be held on site on July 2.

The board voted 2-1 to post the bridge on Josh Road for a 6,000-pound weight limit, rather than spend a little over $1,000 to upgrade it. Sumner voted against.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns has notified the board and constable Len Derby that liability coverage will change if the constable is not certified by June 30, or in the process of being certified. The board is uncertain whether Derby plans to pursue certification and will discuss the matter with him.

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