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Better benefits: Some in Orange balk at new treasurer hire

ORANGE — Gabriele Voelker was sworn in earlier this week as Orange’s new treasurer.

Town officials hope Voelker’s appointment will fill gaping holes in the town’s financial team. But discontent continues to smolder among many town employees and board members who feel Voelker received working conditions and benefits out of line with other new hires.

Selectboard members approved her hire at their meeting last week.

Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Reinig said Voelker’s extensive experience and willingness to sort out tough problems impressed her. “When I asked why she was interested in the position, she said she’s looking for a challenge and loves to fix systems that aren’t working well.”

Town Administrator Diana Schindler said the loss of the town accountant and treasurer over the past year created serious problems for keeping the town books and generating financial reports. Last fall, the town accountant resigned and the vacancy lasted six months. This summer, after taking some leave time, former Treasurer Joy Grover resigned.

Despite the efforts of Schindler and other Town Hall staff to fill in, the work piled up.

Schindler said she has had difficulty filling the position due to the backlog. She said several qualified candidates balk at the lack of administrative support for the financial team. Schindler asked for more Town Hall support staff during budget season, but the Finance Committee did not include her request in its final budget.

Schindler said that Voelker, who currently works as treasurer in New Salem, Shutesbury and Mahar Regional School, originally proposed to tackle the job by bringing in her own support staff. In the end, the town negotiated to hire Voelker as a full-time employee with assistance from support staff already in place.

Schindler said she will have flexible hours, allowing her to maintain her position at Mahar and one of the other towns.

Schindler added that Voelker, like all employees, will be expected to attend meetings, meet deadlines and complete work essential to her position.

“She will be judged by meeting deadlines and getting accomplished what needs to be accomplished,” said Reinig.

While there will be set hours in which the Treasurer’s Office will be open, Schindler said the assistant treasurer will be mostly present during that time.

Based on Voelker’s 15 years’ work experience as treasurer, the board agreed to give her three weeks of vacation, which angered employees, residents and Human Resource Commission members.

Orange employees normally receive no vacation in their first year. Starting in their second year of service, they earn two weeks of vacation, but they don’t earn three weeks of vacation until their fifth year.

“We just want to be treated fairly,” said Water System Operator Richard Matthews, who also is the employee representative of the EIU union. Matthews said that after hearing about Voelker’s vacation package, other employees in different departments told him, “That’s great, we work hard for five years for that.”

He asked selectmen, “Where is it going to stop? ... Are new employees going to be able to negotiate paying less for health insurance next?”

Human Resource Commission Chairwoman Linda Smith told selectmen the deals they negotiated with Voelker sets a precedent that may ultimately lead to more costly benefits and wages for town employees. “If you start out with high salaries … then all of a sudden every department wants more money … that’s one of the reasons we’re in the bind we’re in,” she said apparently referring to the town’s ongoing financial challenges.

She urged the board to follow town policies in new hires. “If the (Selectboard doesn’t) follow the town’s bylaws, how can you expect anyone else to? You set the example for the entire town.”

Reinig said she understands the concerns expressed, but she said the town must reconsider policies that prevent officials from hiring people with strong experience in their field. “To hire a qualified professional,” she said, “and give them no vacation in the first 12 months reduces our ability to be competitive …”

But others argued that town policies must be changed by the voters not by officials. “If you want to change town bylaws, you have to change them on town floor,” Rhonda Bartlett told selectmen.

Voelker will begin work in early November.

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