GREAT BARRINGTON -- Despite opposition by the town's Board of Selectmen, the Finance Committee has narrowly agreed to support a recommendation to eliminate financial incentives for serving as a selectman.
The Finance Committee on March 27 will be voting on its recommendations for the budget, which will be acted on by town meeting voters on May 6. The issues are whether each selectman should receive a $1,500 annual stipend and whether the board merits a healthcare allocation of $40,000.
There's been friction between the board members and Town Manager Kevin O'Donnell since a September 2012 board decision not to renew the manager's contract, sparking lingering resentment among some Great Barrington residents. Selectmen wouldn't point fingers, but they suggested "politics" as a driving force behind the decision to eliminate the incentives.
"I normally don't put this out there, because it gets misconstrued, but I do believe there is a political motivation here," said Selectwoman Deborah Phillips.
Phillips, who refused to identify the motivation, added, "I don't want to put words in other people's mouths. They need to speak for themselves."
O'Donnell said the budget proposal was recommended after soliciting opinions from department heads. There was a need to provide professional consultation for the board, he said, and healthcare was a target because it was a large budget expenditure.
Asked about the accusation of politics playing a role in the budget, O'Donnell responded, "That is absolute nonsense."
O'Donnell presented a preliminary budget on Feb. 12 to eliminate financial incentives for the board in the proposed $22 million budget, which would be $82,000 more than last year.
The board members unanimously voted to keep their salary and health benefits, but the decision was narrowly overturned in a 3-2 vote by the Finance Committee. The change, if approved, would take effect on July 1.
Instead of pay, the town would allocate $20,000 in consultant funding allocated for training purposes for selectmen.
Selectmen are claiming foul play, saying the Finance Committee decision was political in nature, while Finance Committee member Walter Atwood III, who put forth the motion, said past board decisions played a role.
Herb Atwood, who has served on the School Committee and Finance Committee along with other boards, said Selectman pay was instated before the early 1990s, prior to the town's conversion to a town manager form of government. He also said the Selectmen should be treated no differently than those on other committees. He highlighted a lack of productivity from the board, citing a failure to renovate dilapidated town-owned buildings and a lack of progress with the Main Street renovation project.
"[The decrease in pay] could easily be a report card for how the Selectmen are acting," said Atwood, who said he has heard multiple complaints from mermbers of the community. Atwood has served on the School Committee, Finance Committee and other boards, and he said he was not compensated for his service.
Selectman Stephen Bannon, who chairs the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, said that a selectman position is more labor-intensive than the School Committee, requiring twice the number of hours, or about 15 to 20 hours. He said service on the Board of Selectmen and School Committee isn't comparable.
Bannon, who uses the insurance coverage and will be running for re-election this year, said losing it wouldn't impact his decision to run. But he said participation could decrease as a result.
"There are people who don't agree with the Selectmen, and they do not believe we should get benefits because we don't agree with them," Bannon said.
Phillips also relies on the town's health insurance plan. She said that even if this is the right decision, it should be deliberately discussed instead of rushed through.
"I think we have a lot of people in the community who are self-employed, and the option of [receiving] insurance through service community makes it possible for them to serve," Phillips said.
Finance Committee member Sharon Gregory, at an earlier meeting, recommended the town manager present a plan that would provide a 2 percent cut in operating expenditures and 5 percent capital expenditures decrease through process improvements and by being creative.
The budget cuts were needed because of the town's high overall tax rate, Gregory said, but she also said cutting the Selectmen's compensation wasn't the right solution because it would limit participation to only those who can afford it.
"I was disappointed with the town manager's suggested reductions in the budget," Gregory said. "[The Selectmen compensation reduction] were not creative and they did not take into account improvements in processes and new ways to get more for less. "
Gregory wouldn't state politics was a motivation though.
"I cannot answer that really because I don't know what people's motivations are," she said.
To contact John Sakata: email@example.com or (413)496-6240.
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