GROTON -- In the runup to fall Town Meeting, the Finance Committee began its review of the financial impact of spending articles listed in the warrant, among them a measure seeking $236,000 in additional funds to cover a shortfall in the town's fiscal 2014 operating budget.
Almost immediately, Town Manager Mark Haddad ran into trouble with members defending his request for extra funding to pay for a change in status for one of two part-time employees in the Town Clerk's Office and making a part-time custodian position full-time.
In the first instance, Haddad wished to increase the hours of one of two part-time employees in the Town Clerk's Office from 19 to 20.
The cost for increased hours, said Haddad, would come to $16,000 a year.
According to Haddad, the situation was not fair that one part-timer should have 20 hours and benefits and the other at 19 hours, just below the threshold when benefits kick in.
Finance Committee Chairman Jay Prager said if the town grants this person the extra time to qualify for benefits including insurance, sick and vacation days, and perhaps retirement, then soon, every other part-time employee will be asking for the same thing.
"You are going to expose the town to two benefits packages for a total of only 40 hours a week (worked)," Prager told Haddad. "I don't get it."
Prager and Haddad also disagreed on the request to convert a part-time custodian position to full-time, the extra hours needed due to an increased workload with the new Center Fire Station due next year.
Prager wondered why the town needed to incur the costs of paying the benefits that come with a full-time position when it could simply hire a second part-timer with no benefits.
"I'm concerned about the long-term costs for the town," said Prager.
Haddad said the current custodian was a good worker, reliable and experienced and deserved the upgrade in hours.
The balance of the $236,000 would cover overruns in the Fire Department, public buildings, the Council on Aging, the senior van, and a planned reopening of Sargisson Beach by a newly established Sargisson Beach Committee.
Also included in the spending measure is money for the public library, including a request for $3,000 to be used to give the new library director an increase in her salary as part of hiring negotiations.
In a separate article, Haddad also said the Police Department had expected to seek funds for the purchase of two new cruisers but that request changed following a recent accident in which one of its cars was totaled in a high-speed chase.
Instead, the department will now seek the purchase of one unmarked car for $30,000 and a new cruiser to replace the wrecked one for which the town would only need to pay $18,000. The balance of $22,000 would be supplied by the insurance company that covered the damaged vehicle.
From the town's free-cash account, Haddad requested an appropriation of $50,000 to go toward various expenditures related to the town's parks and common areas.
The Finance Committee also reviewed a trio of warrant articles that seek to address the availability of water for firefighting purposes in the Lost Lake neighborhoods.
The problem was highlighted after a fire last June on Boat House Road.
There, confusion over the operation of a hydrassist valve interfered with the flow of water to a relay pump needed to force the water uphill. The need to switch relay pumps also caused delay in delivering water to the hoses. Because water had to be drawn uphill against the pull of gravity, the hose going down the opposite side of the hill to the fire sometimes went empty until enough water could be drawn over the crest.
The problems were serious enough to prompt the creation of a committee to review the incident and make recommendations that included the installation of fire cisterns and the extension of water mains into areas of the Lost Lake neighborhood where there are not any currently.
Separated into three articles, the total amount being sought to pay for design of a new fire protection resource system and putting the project out to bid comes to $103,400.
If the system were to be approved by a future Town Meeting, estimated cost of building the new system would come to $1.3 million and a 10-year bond paid at least in part through betterment fees by local residents.
"The project needs to be looked at in terms of how it gets paid," said Prager, mindful of the recent defeat of a similar attempt to bring wastewater services to the same neighborhoods.
Other members were quick to suggest those alternatives including Steve Webber who asked if a water tank or tower was considered by the committee instead of buried lines.
That would be more expensive, said Water Superintendent Thomas Orcutt who attended the committee's meeting Tuesday, along with Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait.
Webber asked about saving time and money by creating a dual system of water delivery -- one for drinking water and the other for firefighting purposes.
It was something to think about, he was told, if regulations preventing burying lines in a single trench did not prevent such a plan.
"I think that this is a very rational plan but you need to see if there are other alternatives," said Prager of the firefighting plan.
A public hearing on the warrant articles is scheduled to be held by selectmen Sept. 16 after which the Finance Committee is expected to continue its review of the spending measures.