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MERGER COULD SAVE TOWN UP TO $100,000 A YEAR

A departmental merger that some believe could save Amherst as much as $100,000 a year but others view as a political power grab may be discussed today by the Town Board, which last week rejected a public hearing on the question as premature.

Making the 22-employee Building Maintenance Department a division of the Highway Department would eliminate one department head's salary and benefits and offer savings resulting from shared vehicles and vehicle maintenance, equipment and purchasing, according to Council Member James P. Hayes and Highway Superintendent Thomas A. Wik, both Republicans.

But other board members believe the proposal needs more study, including whether it can be expanded to encompass other departments. A motion by Hayes to schedule a hearing was defeated in a 4-3 vote.

The Building Maintenance Department takes care of the buildings and grounds at Amherst Town Hall, where it is headquartered, as well as several other outlying municipal facilities, including the Amherst Senior Center and Harlem Road Community Center.

Its longtime chief, Michael Humbert, whose annual base salary is $52,928, has applied for disability retirement, officials said. If Humbert's position were abolished and his department absorbed by the Highway Department, a general crew chief would be in charge, they said.

Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, a Democrat, said that while the merger appears economically promising, it may not go far enough. For example, while Building Maintenance takes care of several town buildings and their grounds, the Engineering Department on North Forest Road pays $585 a month for outside maintenance and cleaning services. The Police Department on Audubon Parkway, meanwhile, has its own maintenance personnel and buys its janitorial, lawn and equipment maintenance supplies from private vendors.

Including departments like police and engineering in any talks about consolidating janitorial services makes more sense than a piecemeal approach, Ms. Grelick said. "That would be a true consolidation," agreed GOP Council Member Thomas A. Loughran.

Ms. Grelick added that the board might also want to consider splitting up interior and exterior building services and turning the responsibility for lawns and landscaping over to the Parks Department, a division of the Highway Department.

Ms. Grelick said she will ask the board today what it wants to do with the merger proposal by Hayes and Wik. She said it could be sent to the Amherst Government Study Committee, which handled the details of a merger of the tax receiver's and town clerk's offices, a matter voters will decide in a special referendum Aug. 19.

"This department is doing so well and operating so efficiently the way it is, this is a tough decision to make," Ms. Grelick said.

But Hayes predicted that if the Building Maintenance merger goes to committee, "I can almost guarantee you nothing will happen and that's a shame."

It's a case of town officials blaming rising taxes on a favorite whipping boy -- "mandated personnel costs -- but now ignoring an opportunity to reduce them, Hayes said. A savings of $100,000 equals about 3 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation on the town tax rate.

But Council Member Peggy Santillo, a Democrat, questioned the projected savings and called the proposed merger "election year posturing" by Hayes, a candidate for re-election in November. Hayes and Wik are close political allies, and some view the merger idea as an attempt to enlarge Wik's power base.

Mrs. Santillo claimed the move is unpopular with employees, but Hayes said nine wrote a letter in support of the merger. Hayes also suggested opposition on the board stems from sensitivity to upcoming labor union negotiations.

"It's not the unions . . . it's just a bad idea," said Loughran, a Republican, noting the board would "lose control" of the building and grounds at Town Hall to an independently elected official -- the highway superintendent.

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