By Bill Kirk
---- — Tensions flared at the Board of Selectmen’s meeting Monday night as town officials argued about ballooning retirement benefits, the new town accountant and the hiring of a $55,000-a-year secretary.
The biggest disagreement of the night erupted near the end of the three-hour meeting, when Selectman Mary Lyman expressed displeasure at the town’s decision to hire a full-time executive secretary for the Finance Department.
“I have very big concerns about this,” she said, noting that Town Offices secretaries should not be making such large salaries. “We are sending a mixed message here. We are talking about trying to save money. ... It’s big money. I don’t understand what we’re trying to do here.”
Lyman said that with benefits, the Finance Department secretary will end up costing the taxpayers $75,000 a year, not including the long-term effect on the town’s pension and retiree health insurance systems.
Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski said the job title was misleading, and that the new employee, who had already been offered the job, is not filling a new position, but rather replacing someone who had retired. However, the position has been upgraded, and the new employee will function more like an assistant to Finance Director Donna Walsh, while also helping out in his office as well as in the veterans office.
“All the department heads have administrative assistants,” he said. “They address a number of things, like personnel and payroll, to take the burden off the department head. This does the same thing.”
Selectman Brian Major told Lyman that the appropriate time to discuss the new position was during budget negotiations, not when the board was being asked to approve a new hire.
But Lyman wouldn’t give in.
“I’m not going to turn away when someone (a taxpayer) says, ‘Why is the town taking my money?’” she said.
In a separate interview Tuesday, Lyman said, “I felt like (Major) was trying to bully me. I’m not throwing $75,000 in taxpayers’ money out without examining it. People are saying to me, ‘Only Andover would hire a secretary for $55,000.’ We need to get back in line, and the town manager needs to be working with us. Monday night felt like a real struggle.”
The board voted 4-1 in favor of hiring Christine Barraford for the position. Lyman was the lone opposition vote.
“There are a lot of resources going into that office,” Lyman said, referring to the Finance Department. “You have a new finance director, the new town accountant and this position. For a year and a half, it was a part-time person doing the job. It’s either misclassified or overpaid. And it’s a question of the need.”
The debate over the new secretary was just one of several testy exchanges throughout the evening.
Earlier, Lyman and Selectman Dan Kowalski laid out their positions on how the town accountant’s job should be set up. They were part of a subcommittee looking into how best to reorganize the department following the retirement of Rodney Smith in November.
Under the town charter, the town accountant is hired and fired by the selectmen and serves as their eyes and ears in town hall, reporting to selectmen but working for the town manager.
Lyman proposed leaving things as is because there is a clear chain of command with the town accountant reporting directly to the selectmen.
Kowalski, however, favored a different approach, which includes moving the town accountant into a newly rebranded Financial Services Department led by the finance director. The town accountant would also be the assistant finance director.
While that’s the option selectmen ultimately agreed on, Stapczynski, over the objections of Chairman Alex Vispoli, put two other options on the table Monday night.
“We don’t want four proposals on the table,” Vispoli said.
Stapczynski ignored him and put forward his ideas for the position anyway, including creating a single position of town accountant/budget and finance director.
In the end, selectmen voted unanimously to approve Kowalski’s plan. The new town accountant/assistant finance director’s job will be advertised at a salary range of $70,000 to $80,000 a year.
Tensions flared again during discussion of Stapczynski’s goals for 2013, one of which was to develop a plan to get a handle on runaway costs for retirees’ pensions and health care.
For more than a year, selectmen have been trying to get Stapczynski to come up with a concrete plan with specific recommendations on how to deal with the increasing cost of retirees’ health insurance and pensions. Monday night, there was no such plan.
Stapczynski said the town “has an actuary working on it. The study is not done yet.”
He said he would have specifics at a special meeting Monday night with selectmen, the School Committee and Finance Committee called to go over retiree benefits.
Selectman Paul Salafia said Tuesday the debate was healthy.
“We are very, very tough on Buzz,” he said. “We expect a lot out of him.”
He added that while the debate feels “antagonistic and contrary,” the selectmen are all good friends outside of the meeting.
“You have to present opposing views and still have civilized conversation,” Salafia said.