Layoffs at Rockingham Town Hall prompt complaint

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BELLOWS FALLS — On his first day as interim town manager, Charles Wise laid off three town employees — a result, he said, of reduced foot traffic in the Town Hall.

Wise, who took over formally as manager on May 18, said he decided to eliminate the three positions because the Town Hall is currently closed to the public, and while it will eventually be reopening, it will be open four days a week. There is little or no demand for those positions now, he said.

He said the layoffs, in central administration, take effect June 1, the same day the Town Hall will reopen to the public with limitations.

"We do not get the foot traffic," he said. "The building is less active and there is less access and less maintenance."

Wise declined to confirm the names of the employees affected out of respect for their privacy, but said the positions were assistant town clerk, administrative assistant in the planning and zoning office, and the maintenance manager of the Town Hall. Those positions are held by Barb Joy in the town clerk's office, Joan Harlow in the planning office and Bruce Bennett, the maintenance supervisor. Harlow had been employed by the town for close to 30 years.

The decision prompted one resident, Bob DeRusha, to appear before the Rockingham Select Board Tuesday night and protest the layoffs.

DeRusha is a former chairman of the Rockingham Planning Commission, and he said the cuts had "political" overtones. DeRusha couldn't be reached later in the week.

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Gaetano Putignano, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, said on Friday he didn't know about the layoffs until DeRusha spoke at the very beginning of the Tuesday night meeting, but he said he got a hint about possible layoffs from Select Board member Stefan Golec just before the meeting.

Putignano said the members of the board had no role in the decision, since all employees work for the manager, not the board. "That's above my pay grade," he said. "We work with the manager to set the budget."

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Wise, who is also the town's zoning and planning officer, said while it was a difficult decision to make, the realities of the coronavirus and the effect on town government dictated that cuts be made. He said he felt cuts had to be made in the Town Hall administration first.

Many workers in the town's Highway Department were put on furlough several weeks ago, but most have already been called back, he said.

Wise said he thought the layoffs or furloughs in the Public Works Department would be "the last."

Wise said it is possible that the three Town Hall positions will be restored in the future, if public use of the building rebounds. But he called the layoffs "force reductions" which in all likelihood would be permanent.

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He said his job as zoning administrator had changed dramatically and permanently. All applications and filings are done electronically, he said.

Starting June 1, the Town Hall will be open from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and people must wear a face mask and follow other restrictions. "We're not able to return to pre-COVID levels," Wise said.

One department that will be reopening in a phased way is the recreation department. "It's essential for our parents. The kids need to get out and socialize," Wise said. He said the town will be ramping up recreation programs, and will be compliant with COVID protocols established by the state.

While the staff of the town-owned Bellows Falls Opera House was laid off once the theater closed, Wise said manager Rick Angers is working to come up with a new, expanded business plan for the theater.

"How can we update and rejuvenate?" he said. Once the state allows theaters to reopen, he said, "we will be ready."

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