September 27, 2012WAKEFIELD — Two former employees and a former town official came to the Wakefield selectmen's afternoon meeting on Sept. 19 to give their views on using private contractors to plow selected areas of town in place of highway department trucks.
Wakefield selectmen are looking for ways to reduce town expenses without reducing services. They have contracted with Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI) of Meredith to analyze town departments and compare them to five other similar communities in New Hampshire and Maine with the goal of finding ways to improve efficiencies and keep costs down. Even before receiving the final MRI report, which is now expected in October, selectmen decided to invite independent contractors to bid on plowing snow on selected routes that Road Agent Fred Clough felt could be done separately from highway department plows.
Clough was delayed and thus not present at 4 p.m. when the Sept. 19 meeting started, but Dan Davis, former head of the highway department who retired this spring; Rusty Loring, former department mechanic; and former selectman Johnny Blackwood were in the audience.
Blackwood asked what MRI was recommending about plowing.
Selectman Chair Ken Paul responded that, in general, MRI was recommending that the town outsource as much as possible. He then went on to make the argument against hiring a town employee to do the work: a $40,000 salary; $80,000 with benefits; then buy a plow truck and pay to maintain it, for a total cost of up to $200,000 a year. He added that the town is not looking a low-balling contractors. "They could get $60 to $75 an hour."
Selectman Peter Kasprzyk gave a different response, saying Paul School spends $60,000 a year on vehicle maintenance and is looking for a diesel mechanic who would do the maintenance and whose salary and benefits would be shared with the town. The school focus would be on light duty maintenance – oil changes, replacing light bulbs and the like, while the town focus would be on diesel mechanic work and plowing. Police, fire and highway department vehicles would be included.
Loring commented that a person in that position could be spread too thin.
Kasprzyk assured Loring that the town and school would still outsource major repairs. He said the committee considering the school-town proposal will be meeting next week and asked Loring to come to the meeting.
Blackwood said the town would be "going backwards" if it put snowplowing out to contractors. "In 1993 we cleared everything with town crews and roads were open at 6 a.m.," he said. "You can't plow roads with a pickup." He suggested that selectmen look at Brookfield roads to see what happens when you try that approach. "You can't work with just three people – you need five."
"Roads should be number one," Blackwood continued. "We have the trucks. We just need operators." He complained that roads in town are "going to pieces," citing Canal Road. added that a dump truck should last 20 years, not 10. "With a good Road Agent you can get a lot done," he concluded.
Kasprzyk said, "We have a good Road Agent."
Loring asked if the town intended to keep his truck in the garage. The response was that the rusted frame was being repaired and the truck should be on the roads this winter.
"Plow trucks will have to take two or three passes to do what a town truck can do in one pass," Loring said.
Blackwood continued his critique: "You've got three men in the sixties down there. You should have some young guys training to take their places." He added that drivers should also be required to maintain their own trucks, and that "There is plenty of work to do on the roads in the summer" to justify having five men. Finally he pointed out that the three men currently in the department are overweight: "What happens if they keel over?" he asked. His view was that the town needed five men in winter, with one extra part timer.
Paul said he heard from other selectmen the view that the highway department was "one man heavy" at five men.
Kasprzyk argued that the mechanic position that Loring did is needed. Paul contended that such a person could be hired for $25 an hour; Blackwood said $35 an hour; and Selectman Charlie Edwards said he knows someone who would come for $22-25 an hour.
Kasprzyk pointed out "it's hard to convince people to pay more for roads."
Blackwood said Wakefield's tax rate is pretty good and that roads need attention.
There was also some discussion of whether private contractors plowing driveways should be charged for town sand, especially if they charge clients extra to sand. The town currently does not charge for residents using sand.
Paul ended the discussion by saying that the topic would be back on the agenda for the Sept. 26 meeting. Edwards pointed out that a decision needs to be made soon because winter is fast approaching.
Selectmen heard an appeal from Lisa Kimball, Finance Clerk, of her annual performance review prepared by Town Administrator Teresa Williams and presented on Aug. 28. Kimball asked for a public meeting rather than a nonpublic session.
Her main concern was with the numerical ratings given for her performance of discrete components of her job, such as accuracy and promptness. For the most part the ratings were 3, in the middle of a range from unacceptable to outstanding.
All three selectmen told Kimball in one way or another that a 3 rating meant that she was doing the job as expected and that the town was happy with her performance. Kimball felt that the 3 did not reflect the extra care and effort she put into her work.
By the end of a lengthy discussion the review remain unchanged.
The next regular meeting of the Wakefield Board of Selectmen was scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall meeting room.