Harwich Tries To Halt Employee Poaching

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Finance

Harwich is trying to stem the loss of employees to other Cape towns. PIXABAY PHOTO

HARWICH — The town has lost two department heads this past year and a third department head, Treasurer/Tax Collector Amy Bullock, has been offered a position in the town of Dennis. To retain employees, Town Administrator Christopher Clark sees the need to implement some “anti-poaching initiatives.”

What often drives the decision to leave a position in one town to take a similar position in another town is compensation. Clark told selectmen last Thursday that sometimes employees come to him and tell him of offers they've received, and sometimes they do not.

In the past year the town lost Council on Aging Director Judi Wilson and Town Planner Aly Sabatino. In the case of Bullock, Clark was told of she was offered a new job, but hadn't taken it yet.

In an effort to keep Bullock, Clark recommended a two-step jump in compensation, a decision he is empowered to make under the town charter. He pointed out that former assistant town administrator Robert Lawton and he examined the job description and agreed the new duties and responsibilities of the position deserve an increase. The position was weighed against that of the director of assessing, which is at a M-5 pay grade, and it was agreed the duties were of equal value to the town.

Clark recommended to selectmen the treasurer/tax collector's position be upgraded from M-4, step 9 to an M-5, step 7 “to make the position more competitive when other towns come calling.”

“As much as I don't like other towns poaching and we have lost the council on aging director and the town planner...nobody gets rich working for town government, they are always low on the pay scale,” Selectman Donald Howell said. “It's hard to find an $80,000 to $100,000 job here.”

But he said the town finds itself on that treadmill, with Chatham and Dennis paying more and the town not having a strategy to deal with the issue. He said the town cannot continue to pay for upgrading.

Clark said the offer to Bullock was $12,000 more than she is currently making and the Dennis department had more employees, so the workload would be less. The salary difference has a big impact when heading toward retirement, he added, since the final three years' salary determines retirement compensation. In Dennis Bullock would retire with $8,000 more, he said.

Clark implemented the two step raise, adding $4,000 to Bullock's salary, but he said he was trying to get to a $10,000 increase.

Selectman Michael MacAskill wanted to know when the desk audit on the treasurer/tax collector was done, pointing out in June executive session minutes that were approved and released there were four positions reviewed and recommended for an increase, and this was not one of them.

As part of the contract with the union, officials agreed to review 18 positions, six a year over a three-year period, Clark said. The treasurer/tax collector review was early on and the new job description provided new duties and responsibilities.

MacAskill called this approach to a salary increase “a slippery slope.” He sought more information about the job offer. Clark said he learned of it after speaking with Bullock and he took her on her word about the offer. Bullock had helped the Dennis department out for a short period.

MacAskill also said he wanted to compare apples to apples when examining compensation. It was pointed out the Dennis position was for 40 hours a week while the position in Harwich is 35 hours. In Dennis the insurance coverage is 60 percent from the town and 40 percent from the employee, while it is 75/25 in Harwich. He also wanted longevity comparisons.

Selectman Larry Ballantine sought specifics on funding the increases. Clark said the 2 percent increase was $4,000 and he had budgeted $10,000 for reclassification. He said he is looking to use the other $6,000 for the classification increase.

“Are there others coming down the pike we don't know about?” Ballantine inquired.

“If we get the reputation of being a training ground for others, there will be more coming to raid us,” Clark responded.

The request for the grade increase would put the position at $88,033; the Dennis position pays $92,000.

Finance Director Carol Coppola said she did an analysis of the job duties and statutory requirements and the current grading of the Harwich position is not accurate. The level of responsibility is the critical factor, and if the increase isn't approved, she said she would bring it up again.

“It's more about planning than reacting,” MacAskill said. “I believe the town administrator didn't do due diligence on this one.”

Howell said he agreed with MacAskill on the need to conduct a comparison on wages, benefit and hours. But he also expressed concern for criticism should the town let Bullock go.

“We need to move ahead with this, but we need to have our ducks in a row,” Ballantine said.

Clark drew a comparison to “government by making sausage. “ He stressed the need to send an anti-poaching message and tell employees the town will look at poaching on a case-by-case basis. He said this will discourage other towns from poaching.

But MacAskill said the presentation was incomplete and he needed every document that was used in basing the recommendation for the increase to be shared with the board. He said he wanted to view the differences in health benefits, longevity and hours.

“I just want to make an informed decision,” MacAskill told The Chronicle.

No decision was made on the classification increase.

“I don't know if the Dennis position is still open. I haven't asked,” Bullock said on Monday, her first day back after vacation.