New Ipswich Select Board considers hiring, retention measures

Town of New Ipswich. 

Town of New Ipswich.  FILE PHOTO

By BILL FONDA

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 11-08-2023 1:38 PM

Police Chief Michael Abel said he fantasizes about having a department with officers who have 10 years of experience, and he has been working to rebuild the department since first becoming interim chief and then permanent chief in 2021 by hiring officers that meet high standards.

“They’re not just, ‘Hey, you’ll do. Come work for us,” he said during a public hearing at Mascenic Regional High School Tuesday night.

However, those efforts have been hamstrung by officers leaving for higher pay and better benefits. One officer departed for Amherst in April, and two others will be leaving, including another for Amherst. That leaves the department, which was budgeted for six officers when Abel took over, down three.

“We want to work for you, but we need the resources,” Abel said. “The reality is, if we don’t do something, we’re not going to fill shifts.”

Department of Public Works Director Peter Somero is having the same problem. The department has six employees when he started seven years ago and is authorized for seven, but only has three filled, including his. Somero’s goal is to fill three positions in 2024, and has been advertising for several months, but with pay of $23 an hour and a requirement for commercial driver’s licenses (CDL), he hasn’t had success, leaving overtime and part-timers to fill the gaps.

“If we don’t get help, the roads will deteriorate and we won’t be able to get down them in the wintertime,” he said.

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Abel and Somero both have ideas to attempt to stem the tide. Abel is looking to offer retention bonuses, while Somero is looking to increase wages to $25 an hour, offer a $1,000 sign-on bonus and assistance for new hires to get their CDL. Both are looking to implement those incentives using unspent money in their current budgets, but Town Meeting voted 489-262 in 2014 in favor of an advisory warrant article “requiring voter approval for any adjustments to town employee wages to include generation of new positions, all wage increases and employee bonuses.”

Select Board Chair Shawn Talbot said that although the vote wasn’t binding, the board should not just ignore it, and therefore the public hearing was to gauge residents’ opinions about potentially adding the incentives mid-budget with unused funds instead of waiting until next year’s budget for Town Meeting approval.

“It doesn’t sound like much, December to March, but it is,” he said.

Becky Doyle, a former Select Board member whose husband Alan said he wrote the 2014 warrant article, said the 2014 vote was intended to require unused money to be returned to the fund balance in order to lower taxes instead of being spent at the end of the year on salaries that would then be locked in to future budgets. She also said the expectation was that increases and bonuses would be in the budget.

“This is the will of the people,” she said. 

Doyle also said police officers and DPW employees are leaving in spite of raises and improved benefits, and wanted to know what would happen in subsequent years if the measures are put into place.

“Are we going to be held hostage again?” she said.

Talbot replied that the intent is to provide a stopgap measure in this year’s budget before putting measures in the budget next year, so the town wouldn’t be “held hostage,” and Select Board member Jason Somero said that having owned a business, sometimes he had to make decisions in order to keep people.

“How do you run an organization when you have to wait eight months?” he said,

Mindy Buxton, the town’s parks and recreation director, was in favor of the measures, saying “We have money left over that we already paid for, and we want to keep these gentlemen.” Deputy Fire Chief Ben Hatcher said he was discouraged that people complain without providing any solutions, and that “This is an idea. I don’t see any other idea.”

“I believe in the will of the people, but what are we going to do, not have a highway department or police department?” he said. 

After the approximately 90-minute hearing, Talbot said he wanted to consider the matter further, and in particular weigh whether adding the measures now would jeopardize the budget passing in March. Although the budget passed by more than 150 votes this year, it only passed by four as recently as 2021.

Talbot said the matter would be on the board’s agenda within the next few weeks.