October 04, 2012WAKEFIELD — After months of discussing the issue and soliciting interest in plowing town roads from local contractors, Wakefield selectmen decided on 2-1 vote at their Sept. 26 meeting to continue plowing town roads with highway department employees. They also agreed to hire replacements for the two highway employees who retired this spring.
Before making the final decision on whether to hire additional staff for the highway department, the Board of Selectmen met with Wakefield School Board members Judy Nason and Steve Brown, who came to see if the town was interested in sharing the services of a mechanic. Both are members of the recently-formed Vehicle Maintenance Committee that includes Selectman Peter Kasprzyk, Road Agent Fred Clough, Police Chief Ken Fifield, and Fire Chief Todd Nason.
At the outset Judy Nason made it clear that the committee had narrowed its objective to sharing maintenance between the highway department and the school board for now, leaving the question of including the fire and police departments until some later time. She also said that the school board had looked into have First Student provide the bus service but have ruled that option out since it would cost $150,000 more than the district is paying now for its own buses and drivers.
Chief Fifield said he would like to get more work done on the police cruisers. "We can't do as much as we want due to high costs. Most of the maintenance cost is for ordinary things like changing tires, fluids and spark plugs. If we could get the oil and plugs taken care of that would make a difference."
Chief Nason said he was not against the idea of shared maintenance, but did not want to "jump on board right away." His main concern was the great relationship his department has with Crowell's, the Wakefield garage and towing company. "They are prepared to pick up an ambulance or pull stuck vehicles out without charge. I am reluctant to pull out and lose all those extras. The extras are done because these people live in town."
Judy Nason said the school district spent $75,000 on bus repairs and maintenance in 2011 on its fleet of 15 school buses. Half of the $75,000 was for labor.
She has collected job descriptions for bus maintenance personnel from other districts that did maintenance in house and well as the job description for Milton's mechanic and hourly rates from the Department of Transportation and the Governor Wentworth Regional School District. Her cost estimate for the proposed position was based on the highest salary at $50,000 a year plus the 2013 rates for pension, medical and dental benefits.
Nason said what the district was looking for was someone to do tire changes, oil changes and light bulb replacement – nothing major. Right now it costs $300-400 to change the oil for buses that run 200 miles a day, 180 days a year. She said the Governor Wentworth bus supervisor said having a mechanic on site means that minor problems can be taken care of right away. District Business Administrator Andrew D'Agostino added up the hours involved and it came to 400, which is 20 percent of a full-time position.
Kasprzyk added that the basic idea is to hire a mechanic to replace Rusty Loring and work on the school buses would pay for 20 percent of the cost of the position. The plan would be to start slowly and keep track of hours. The town and school would each pay for their own parts. When not working on the buses the mechanic would service highway department equipment, operate heavy equipment and do plowing in the winter.
Selectman Charlie Edwards was in favor of trying the sharing plan but was concerned about potential liability, since the buses carry kids.
Former Selectman Paul Morrill said it wouldn't be necessary to hire a certified mechanic for the type of work being considered.
Selectman Chair Ken Paul tabled the shared mechanic issue temporarily to discuss what to do about snowplowing.
To replace employees or subcontract?
Paul has advocated exploring alternatives to replacing Road Agent Dan Davis and department mechanic Rusty Loring after they retired this spring. The retirements brought department staffing down from five employees to three. Newly-appointed Road Agent Fred Clough, one of the three, was willing to try to get by with three men, which he has done through the summer, but Clough said "it just didn't work. Last week I had four vehicles and three men." Clough had earlier voiced reservations about using private contractors to supplement his crew for winter snowplowing.
Paul argued that replacing the two highway department employees and providing them with trucks to do plowing and road maintenance work would cost the town $100,000 each per year. His reasoning was if you hired someone at $40,000 a year (about $19 an hour), the cost of benefits would double that to $80,000, and then the annual cost of purchasing and maintaining a dump truck each would add another $20,000.
One of Paul's considerations is the fact that one of the department's heavy-duty trucks used for sanding and salting is currently out of service being repaired for a rusted frame. This creates the possibility that the town may have to replace that expensive truck next year.
Another consideration is that in talks with Municipal Resources Inc. (MRI) as part of their ongoing study of Wakefield departments to identify ways to reduce operating costs, MRI has been urging the town to consider contracting out services rather than doing them with town employees.
"Government should not be a major employer," Paul said. "In a private contractor you don't have extra men, just enough to get the work done."
Town Administrator Teresa Williams had solicited interest from contractors in bidding on plowing selected town roads. Among others Brookfield's Ed Nason, that town's Road Agent and a contractor, had expressed interest in plowing Gage Hill Road, which connects with Clark Road in Brookfield.
Selectman Charlie Edwards said he would like to see the two men hired. "It would help the community," he said. He made a motion to bring the highway department back up to five men by hiring two new employees.
Selectman Peter Kasprzyk, who has favored a plan to share a diesel mechanic with the school (see below), seconded the motion.
The vote was 2-1 in favor, with Paul voting against.
Former Selectman Johnny Blackwood remarked from the audience that the town should be looking for a heavy equipment operator, not just a truck driver.
"A heavy equipment operator and a mechanic," Paul reminded him.
Following the decision to hire the two employees, Judy Nason asked Paul whether the board intended to share the mechanic that it had just decided to hire.
Paul gave his personal opinion, "if we have a mechanic, we should share." Since the town budget currently includes five positions, Paul saw no need to change but advised the school board not to include savings in its 2013-14 budget due for a vote in March, just as a precaution. Nason agreed that the sharing should be approached as a pilot program
The sharing was scheduled to start as of Jan. 1, 2013. However, the town will now advertise for a diesel mechanic with a commercial driver's license who can operate heavy equipment and start as soon as possible.