BELLOWS FALLS — Some Bellows Falls village trustees are not happy with some of the spending by acting Municipal Manager Charles "Chuck" Wise.
As a compromise, the trustees agreed to have Bellows Falls Village President Deborah Wright have a private conversation with Wise about his discretionary spending.
Trustee James "Jiggs" McAuliffe said he was upset with some of Wise's spending - in particular two new laptops for Wright, and by extension, the Rockingham Select Board Chairman Gaetano Putignano.
The Surface Pro 7 laptops, which Wright said cost $1,500 each, were purchased by Wise so that she and Putignano could sign payroll remotely and confidentially.
"The Town Hall was closed," she said, and neither she nor Putignano could come into the building to sign documents.
But McAuliffe was incredulous that Wise, who was not at the meeting, had spent money on laptops for Wright and Putignano, saying the laptops weren't necessary, and that Wright and Putignano could easily sign documents and drop them off at the Town Hall.
McAuliffe said he wants to rein in Wise's spending, given the fact that he is an acting manager and the town and village are tightening their belts in the coronavirus era.
"I'd like to limit the interim manager's expenditures," McAuliffe said, saying he would suggest "a gentleman's agreement" rather than changing the policy.
"Get the manager to stop doing that," he told Wright, accusing Wise of "gross dereliction of duty."
Changing the town and village policy regarding the manager's purchasing power was not discussed, as the board agreed that Wright should have a private talk with Wise, who is on vacation this week.
McAuliffe said he was also upset with merit raises that Wise gave to some village employees, without consulting with the Village Board of Trustees.
McAuliffe's comments angered Finance Director Shannon Burbela, who accused the trustees of "micro-managing" both Wise and herself.
She said the purchases and merit increases were well within Wise's rights as manager, since the town and village have a spending limit of $14,499 before the manager must seek approval from either the trustees or the Rockingham Select Board.
McAuliffe and Burbela engaged in a heated dialogue, with Burbela repeatedly interrupting McAuliffe until Wright interceded.
Burbela defended the merit pay - she herself received a merit increase, according to Wright - saying that the impact to village voters was $2,200. Wright said the figure was actually closer to $4,500.
"We have eliminated multiple positions," Burbela said, and "the rest of us picked up the slack."
Wise, who is the town's zoning administrator, took over as acting municipal manager in June with the departure of Manager Wendy Harrison. He also immediately laid off three Town Hall employees; since then, the recycling coordinator has also departed in protest and the theater manager was fired.
Burbela said some employees "haven't had a merit in 20 years."
Burbela said cutting back on the manager's discretionary spending "will slow down the municipality." She said Wise's discretionary spending was "insignificant."
And she defended the spending, saying that preliminary financial figures showed that the end of the fiscal year had come in under budget.
"I would beg you to re-evaluate your level of micro-managing," Burbela said. "We are micro-managed to the nth degree," she said.
Wright said after the meeting that all employees - whether unionized or not - had received regular cost-of-living increases; the most recent came last year.
She said she was upset with the merit increases only because the trustees and the select board had recently started negotiations with the two municipal unions. The money that had been set aside for raises has been spent on the merit increases, she said.
The manager's spending limit has been criticized repeatedly in recent years. Former Town Manager Wendy Harrison was also criticized for independent spending, even while it was under the limit.
Wright said the issue of the manager's spending limit had come up regularly for years.
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