By Ray Carbone
WARNER – A long-delayed wage study commissioned by the board of selectmen is at the center of a dispute between the board and its administrator, Jim Bingham, on one side and several residents, including some members of the budget committee, on the other.
In recent weeks, the disagreement had led to several developments. Mike Cutting, chairman of the budget group, has discussed the idea of submitting a warrant article at the annual town meeting that would restrict the selectmen from taking certain wage-related actions in the future; Bingham, the town administrator, has told the budget committee that he will no longer attend its meetings; and John Dabuliewicz, the selectman’s representative to the budget group, has said that’s he’s not seeking reelection, partly as a result of criticism he’s received related to his board’s work on the wage study.
“Are we (selectmen) perfect and have we always been open,” Dabuliewicz asked rhetorically, according to the unapproved minutes of the Dec. 27 budget meeting. “No, we haven’t… But we’ve done the best we can and we are trying to do the best we can, and I resent the fact that people only talk about you when they have criticism… And that’s one of the big reasons I’m not running again.”
At the most recent budget committee meeting in town hall last Thursday, Jan. 3, Cutting read aloud an email message from Bingham sent earlier in the day.
“After much thought, reading the minutes and listening to the recording of the (Dec. 27) meeting, I feel that a reassessment of how these meetings are conducted needs to be made immediately,” Bingham wrote. “The culture of the proceedings must change towards one of civility, respect and orderly discussion. As I have no assurance that the hostile tone of the last meeting will not continue (at the Jan. 3 meeting), I have decided not to attend tonight’s meeting.
Police chief Billy Chandler said he was told that no (wage) decisions would be made until the selectmen met with department heads, but he was never invited to meet with the board before a plan was announced.
“The dynamics of the budget committee meetings are too unruly and the history of sarcasm, condescension and personal attacks by some of its members towards myself, the department heads and our professional predecessors, makes the whole experience of attending budget committee meetings demoralizing and extremely unproductive,” he added. “This is a problem that has been quietly yet resentfully endured for a number of years, but for me, no longer.”
In many New Hampshire towns, the budget committee plays an important role. The members serve as a final financial “check-point” in the annual budget crafting process, reviewing the selectmen’s proposed budget. But because budget committee members are usually not as ingrained into the town’s day-to-day workings, their meetings tend to be less structured and more casual than those of other town boards.
The selectmen and Bingham say that the Warner group’s meetings have sometimes crossed the line into disrespectful behavior.
The selectmen originally commissioned the wage/compensation study from Thorton & Associates, a human resource consulting firm based in Maine, in 2017. Its goals were to clarify town job descriptions and compensations packages, as well as to evaluate the wage structures as compared to other local communities.
The selectmen began evaluating the consultant’s report in early 2018, according to Dabuliewicz’s comments at the Dec. 27 meeting, and the three-member board is still working through the final details of job descriptions. Because the project took longer than anticipated, the selectmen recently approved pay raises for several town employees based on the new plan, which took effect in December.
At the Dec. 27 budget meeting, some committee members and several other residents criticized the December raises, saying that selectmen shouldn’t have okayed the pay increases.
“The precedent (in Warner) is that anything that is going to be a long-term major expenditure goes before the town (at the annual meeting), and this did not go before the town,” said Martha Bodnarik, a member of the committee, according to the minutes. “This is an every-year increase because you have put in in (the budget annually).”
At last week’s meeting, Cutting suggested that a citizens’ warrant article could be drafted for consideration at the March town meeting that would require all future salary increases be included in the annual operating budget, and “not be paid until (the budget) is adopted by the town meeting.”
At the Dec. 27 meeting, some residents also criticized the wage study’s methodology, which they claimed didn’t provide enough input from department heads, placed too much emphasis on comparisons to other towns, and was needlessly motivated by fears about employee retention.
John Leavitt and Alfred Hanson were particularly harsh, asserting that the process of evaluating and implementing the new wage plan wasn’t sufficiently open to the public.
Bill Chandler, the town’s police chief, admitted that he was “a little disappointed” in how the process worked. According to the minutes, Chandler said he’d was told that no decisions would be made on his department’s wages until the selectmen met with department heads, but he was never invited to meet with the board before a plan was announced.
Leavitt said that he and others have requested sometimes information from Bingham’s office about the selectmen’s work on the wage package but haven’t received much response. “There are many situations where no data is supplied from the town,” he said.
The comment seemed to put the finger at Bingham, who was frequently the target of the criticism about the study, according to Kimberley Brown, chairman of the selectmen.
Late last week, Brown said that the meeting minutes on the town website do not accurately convey the unkind tone of some remarks aimed at the town administrator.
“It was pretty horrible, the way he was treated,” she said. “It was brutal.”
Brown added that, regardless of what’s been said, she has confidence in Bingham’s integrity and abilities.
She also said she understands his decision to not attend future budget committee meetings, if he’s treated disrespectfully. “I don’t see why he should go,” she concluded.
This story first appeared in the InterTown Record weekly newspaper, published in Sutton, N.H., on Tuesday, January 8, 2019.