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When reform is less than meets the eye

In the real world, when people leave a job either on their own or after some prodding from above, and other people are not hired to replace them (see "downsizing"), the employees fortunate enough to still have jobs have to pick up the slack.

In the real world, those employees generally do not get pay raises. In some cases, they actually get more work to do and a smaller paycheck and fewer benefits (see "doing more with less").

Then there's what happens in government.

The Amherst Town Board has decided to merge its Highway and Refuse departments, after the senior refuse-control officer and a member of the clerical staff retire. Two remaining refuse-control officers -- the people who respond to complaints about garbage -- will then go to work for the Highway Department. The town says the merger will mean the elimination of two jobs and will save the town $104,000 per year.

But as part of the agreement to consolidate under one department in 2010, the board also voted to give Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson a $13,000 yearly stipend on top of the $84,000 he already was scheduled to make.

So for doing extra work, he will get about a 15 percent raise next year. Not bad in that town, in this economy.

Council Member Mark Manna, one of four board members who voted to support the move, said Anderson could have simply refused to take on the additional duties. Instead, he asked for a $17,000 stipend. The two sides settled on $13,000, after examining how other towns treat similar situations.

"There's no perfect solution to any reform," Manna said. "Sometimes you have to look at the overall gain."

Anderson said he proposed the merger more than a year ago to then-Council Member Deborah Bruch Bucki. He said that since the Refuse Department employees worked in his building and already interacted with Highway Department employees, a merger seemed like "an intelligent move."

It also will be a lucrative one for Anderson, who has expressed frustration about his pay. In a letter last month to Council Member Dan Ward, who annually forwards a resolution to freeze the pay of elected officials, Anderson noted that many of his employees now make more money than he does.

Anderson said there is nothing wrong with him getting more money for adding refuse control to his duties.

"This [refuse] is a complaint-driven division. It has employees, it has a budget, it has contracts with companies out there that are picking up the garbage that I have to deal with," he said. "It's not like I'm just getting a bonus or anything; I'm doing more work."

Manna pointed out that this move will not only allow the town to permanently eliminate two positions and save money, but that because some refuse functions are being moved to the Highway Department, the two refuse-control officers will be on the street enforcing refuse-disposal codes. That should mean more compliance with trash-disposal laws.

To be fair, this is not a situation unique to Amherst. If Alden residents agree to shrink their Town Board from five members to three next week, Supervisor Ronald Smith said his job might go from part time to full time to pick up the slack. So any money saved by eliminating two positions could go to his salary.

At the state level, hundreds of employees are taking $20,000 severance packages to quit their jobs in a cost-saving move. But at one agency, the jobs can be filled again in two years.

"Sometimes," Manna said, "reform comes with warts on it."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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