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Uproar over part-time Police Chief, Finance Director positions


March 17, 2010
BERLIN — The debate about part-time employees filling key city positions flared up at the city council budget meeting on Wednesday.

"You know what, enough is enough," Mayor Paul Grenier said, voicing his opposition to such arrangements. "When you retire, god bless you, retire."

The issue centers around municipal employees who retire from their full-time positions and then do the same job part-time. The city finance director and the chief of police are both now part-time contract employees, which means they have to work fewer than 35 hours per week. The retirees are then able to collect retirement, while at the same time getting paid well to do their old jobs.

The finance director will make $70,000 next year, according to the proposed budget, and the police chief will make $82,000.

The council doesn't have control over how much the police chief makes because the police commission writes the police budget, but they do have control over how much the finance director makes.

"Isn't that a little excessive?" Mayor Grenier asked City Manager Pat MacQueen, about $70,000 for a part-time employee.

"Absolutely not," Mr. MacQueen responded. As a part-time employee, he said, the finance director works a total of one hour less per week than they would as a full-time employee, so there isn't much difference.

Mr. MacQueen said he understood the mayor's frustration with the situation, but it is up to the the state to change the laws that allow abuse of the retirement system for years. "The legislature has basically done nothing," he said, and its bankrupting the state retirement system.

But the city gets some benefit, he said, because it doesn't have to pay for benefits for part-time employees. "If we change this approach it will cost us more," he said.

Councilor Robert Danderson pointed out the same thing, that it was cheaper for the city to continue to use this system.

Last year was a pivotal year for municipal employees in the retirement system because it was the last year they could retire and hold onto certain health benefits. The finance director, Blandine Shallow, and Police Chief Peter Morency both retired in time to be eligible for the benefit.

But people like them are part of the reason the system is going bankrupt, Mayor Grenier said: they decrease the number of people paying into the system by not stopping work when they retire. The finance director and the police chief should be full-time positions, he said, and the people filling the roles now should retire.

The police department is in the midst of a five year contract with Chief Morency. The finance director could be let go at any time, but the council does not have the authority to make it happen. They can fire the city manager, but they cannot manage personnel under him.

This debate has been going on since last budget season. Then it was Councilor Lucie Remillard and former councilor Ron Goudreau who protested the arrangement, but the positions remained part-time. Councilor Remillard said she still was opposed to it and would like to see it changed.

The budget is already tight, however; the council has to shave off $1.2 million to keep taxes from rising. Increasing the cost of city employees won't help, even if it's just two of them.

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