Derry board nixes new maintenance position, seeks volunteers

By Cherise Madigan
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing, LLC

The suggestion of a new Highway, Building and Grounds Maintenance employee drew a crowd to Londonderry’s virtual Select Board meeting on Monday night after a number of residents expressed opposition to the position’s cost in a year that has been financially difficult for many.  The $20-per-hour full-time position with benefits amounts to just under $80,000.

Board chair George Mora argued in favor of being proactive in maintaining town assets. Images courtesy of GNAT

Board chair George Mora said the town should be pro-active when it comes to building maintenance. Such an employee would “fill the gaps” in caring for town buildings, property and parks as well as filling in on the town’s highway department and road crew, she said.

The suggested position, included in the budget by Mora and Town Administrator Shane O’Keefe, is a response to community feedback received at Londonderry’s 2020 Town Meeting calling for better maintenance of town properties and roads.

To accommodate the new position, a part-time, seasonal parks maintenance employee — budgeted at around $10,000 annually — as well as expenditures for mowing and service contractors were cut from the budget, said Town Treasurer Tina Labeau.

Board member Tom Cavanagh called the new expenditure “fiscally irresponsible” at a time when residents are struggling financially. He also argued, that finding an employee with all of the required skills and certifications — including a commercial drivers license, general construction knowledge and organizational capabilities — would be nearly impossible.

“We’re talking about a jack of all trades and a master of none,” Cavanagh said. “People should understand that a jack of all trades can get themselves in deep trouble trying to do certain projects. I think this could come back and bite us really hard, and cost us a lot of money.”

Board member Tom Cavanagh saying the new position should have been a warned subject for discussion.

Cavanagh also expressed frustration at how the position was presented: embedded in the budget rather than included as a warned article and without a full discussion among the board. Mora countered that Monday’s discussion was a continuation from one during the previous meeting, and added that all board members were welcome to join in budget drafting sessions that Mora, O’Keefe and Labeau have held.

Planning Commission Chair Sharon Crossman later pointed out that a similar proposal was voted on as a separate article four years ago. Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie agreed that the potential expenditure “needs to be a warned article and not buried in the budget.” Board member Vincent Annunziata added that he had received feedback from residents willing to vote down the budget as a whole if the position is included.

A handful of those residents were in attendance on Monday, a rarity for the recently all-virtual meetings. Jared Parker argued that that the position’s pay rate is “a little extreme” for the work. Chad Stoddard expressed his concerns about the cost of the position as well as the likelihood of finding a qualified employee, especially considering licensing requirements for plumbing and electrical work.

He suggested that town employees and officials should do more to care for town properties if such work is necessary, and that the town’s Road Commissioner have a CDL and experience with heavy equipment in order to help out.

A break down of the cost of a full time building maintenance and highway worker

According to Town Clerk Kelly Pajala, that lack of “helping out” has indeed contributed to the town’s need for services.

Officials and residents alike acknowledged a “rough patch” for the road crew over the last few years, a problem that Cavanagh argued may be solved by the recent hiring of a third employee for the previously understaffed crew. Pajala argued that a decline in volunteerism has also contributed to that rough patch, however, and that having paid town employees “fill in the gaps” has become increasingly difficult.

While past board members including Clyde Prouty, Kevin Beattie, Steven Twitchell and Jim Ameden had been active volunteers when extra plowing or mowing was needed Pajala says, that “just isn’t happening anymore.”

“This isn’t a reflection of our Road Crew’s work ethic or ability,” Pajala said. “We’re asking them to do more with less because we don’t have those extra volunteers who, for decades, got on the mower when it was needed,”

Board member Vincent Annunziata told the board that if the new position was included in the budget rather than a separate article, voters could vote down the town’s spending plan.

This is the second time in recent months that a lack of volunteerism in Londonderry was cited in the context of a new town position, as longtime volunteer Sandra Clark — who serves as the chair of Londonderry’s Board of Listers — will soon be stepping down with no pro-bono replacement. Such willingness to serve the community is a rarity these days, Clark argued, and a paid employee would be needed to serve the town effectively.

In response, the Select Board established a new, part-time position for a Town Assessor at a cost of approximately $55,000 per year (an average salary for the skills required, according to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns) in November. Shortly after, Vernon Town Lister Jeremiah Sund was hired for the position at a rate of $44 per hour for 24 hours a week. No one opposed creating the new position at that time.

A similar resolution may not be likely for the proposed maintenance position, though a number of alternatives were discussed. Cavanagh suggested utilizing the town’s Building Reserve Fund to address a couple of projects a year by hiring experienced contractors who can “get the job done right.”

Crossman added that the Planning Commission has been studying town buildings to assess what repairs might be needed. Though that work has not “always been visible,” she said, construction is the next phase in projects at Town Hall.

Additionally, both Cavanagh and Board member Jim Fleming offered to volunteer as needed. As paid town officials they would be exempt from liability concerns, Labeau said, and Board member Taylor Prouty floated the idea of coordinating a volunteer effort in Londonderry.

“This year, with everything we’ve asked the community to sacrifice, it’s a bad year for another new position,” Annunziata agreed. “I think it would be a great year to see what we could all do together.”

Ultimately, the board unanimously moved to remove the new position from the budget. It was not clear if the proposed position will appear as a warned article at Town Meeting, though the discussion is set to continue at the next Select Board meeting on Jan. 18. If the position is not but before voters at Town Meeting, Pajala requested that the funding for parks employees and maintenance be put back into the budget.

Town Meeting

The board revisited previous discussions about how Town Meeting will be configured, though it can take no action to postpone the meeting until the state approves a measure to allow towns to postpone. Members have supported postponement, and Pajala says legislators will be pushing to allow such action when the new session begins on Wednesday.

State Rep. Kelly Pajala saying that the legislature is pushing to allow select boards to postpone their town meetings

Londonderry’s Town Meeting warning is still being prepared for March just in case.

The board later reviewed issues for Town Meeting including a 1 percent option tax, policing services and speed signs, establishing (but not yet appropriating funds to) a community economic impact reserve fund as well as a highway improvement reserve fund for paving and other projects. Londonderry’s warning will continue to be worked on while a date for Town Meeting is determined.

Reduced town appropriations were also considered in the interest of a lower tax rate, with cuts made to organizations deemed to not be providing essential services during the pandemic. Organizations facing decreased appropriations include the Flood Brook Athletic Association, Greater Northshire Access Television and Friends of the West River Trail.

Funds for Londonderry’s Fourth of July celebration were removed from the budget, as were appropriations for the Windham County Historical Society, and The Current bus service.

Appropriations for most educational, health and human-service organizations were not impacted though officials plan to contact the Champion Fire Company, the South Londonderry Free Library and others to see if cuts to the requested appropriation would be feasible. Organizations objecting to the change in appropriation can petition for the full amount to be included and voted on.

In the end, just under $5,000 was trimmed from the town’s appropriation budget.

In Other News

  • Regina Downer of the My Community Nurse Project presented her work to the Londonderry Select Board as she is requesting an appropriation from the town. Read more from her presentation to the Weston Select Board.
  • A recent traffic speed count on northbound VT Route 100 entering South Londonderry shows that the average speed in that 40 mph zone is 44.5 mph. However, the range of speeds recorded was 20 to 75 mph, with 85 percent of all vehicles traveling at or below 52 mph.
  • Dog licensing renewal season has begun, and the Town Clerk will be mailing renewal forms this year to cut down on in-person contact.
  • The Hazard Mitigation plan presented by Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie was approved unanimously and will be passed on to the state.

 

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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