OTIS — Keeping the streets of this town safe and secure are the combined efforts of the town’s police and highway departments. But keeping both departments fully staffed and competitively compensated throughout a busy winter season has proven to be more of a challenge for the Select Board and the respective department heads.
At the Tuesday, Jan. 14 Select Board meeting, the board heard separate requests from the two departments about maintaining staffing levels until the official appointment time in June.
Prompted by a recent resignation letter from one of the highway department’s two hired laborers, the Select Board tried to persuade town employee, Joe Daley, to stay through the winter.
Daley, a resident of Otis, has been working for the Otis Highway Department for the past five years and recently received and accepted a job offer from the state’s Department of Transportation. Daley’s prospective last day working for the town was Friday, Jan. 17, but a final attempt to keep him on board of the three-member Otis Highway Department was made by the Select Board.
At the meeting, Select Board member William Hiller praised Daley for his years of service to the town and offered him a raise from his current $22.84 an hour rate to $25 an hour.
Daley says he’s enjoyed his time working as part of the highway department, but said that a benefits package being offered by the state is hard to pass up.
“It’s tough getting people into this job for those numbers, simply because $20 an hour, you offer a good insurance package here, but $20 an hour for having a CDL and a hydraulics license, it’s on the low end,” Daley said, offering up understanding for leaving during the middle of winter.
“It’s just a matter of what is financially right for me and my family,” Daley said. “With more money, I could be putting more toward retirement. The benefit package is one thing that really steers me toward the state, and the amount of overtime you get.”
Various town positions, including for members of the highway department, are due for a raise in the upcoming year, said Select Board member Larry Southard.
“As part of our budget plans this year, we have a lot of town employees that, frankly, are underpaid,” Southard said. “We’re really going to address those issues and hopefully bring everybody up to what’s acceptable.”
Hiller stated that the town has typically given out raises every year, in varying degrees, but says when a position is open to fill, like Daley’s, sometimes the town has to pay the price if there is only a certain amount of applicants. The town has received one application for the highway department’s job posting as of its posting on Jan. 7, according to Town Administrator Brandi Page.
Southard stressed the importance of being financially competitive with other municipalities when it comes to hiring and retaining town employees.
“It’s 2020 now,” Southard said. “Minimum wage is $13 an hour and it will be $15 an hour in another year or two. Things and times have changed. We’ve got to figure out a way, as a town, how to address those issues of skilled laborers.”
Later in the meeting, the Select Board heard from Interim Police Chief Dan Hamill about the need for staffing in his department.
Hamill, who primarily works weekdays, says that some last-minute shift openings have caused him to work on the weekends. He says several police officers were hired on an as-needed basis and work other part-time and full-time jobs.
“I’m getting pulled in on the weekends,” Hamill said. “I can’t leave the weekends uncovered. We’re just too busy.”
Hiller acknowledged the difficult spot that Hamill was in, but said he would like to keep the same number of officers in the department.
“If that means one leaves, and a newer and better one comes on, that’s fine,” Hiller said. “Otis is not a hotbed of criminal activity. We have people doing radar out there. I think we are very well covered. If there is a huge public outcry that we’re not, maybe we’ll address it differently.”
The Select Board unofficially agreed to cap the number of members in the police department at seven.
During the meeting, Otis resident Dave Conklin started to berate Hamill from his seat, a row behind him. He expressed his discontent with the Otis Police Department, suggesting that the town should bring in Massachusetts State Troopers instead of adding to the department’s roster. Eventually, Conklin was escorted out of Town Hall by Hamill.
Hamill introduced Adam Gonska at the meeting and said he would like to bring him on for the needed weekend shifts. Gonska, who has also worked in the Sheffield, Sandisfield and Becket as a police officer. in the past, Gonska had applied for a position in Otis in the same month last year, but was not hired at that point because there was already enough officers in the department, said Hamill.
Hamill said that even though Gonska lives in Blandford, he has shown interest in becoming a member of the department. He added that when he put out a call during a recent ice storm for all his officers to show up, Gonska was one of the first, and only, police officers to show up.
“[Adam] has actually come in several times and helped me when I have some of these openings,” Hamill said. “When I initially put out I needed all hands on deck, nobody showed up, except Adam.”
The Select Board voted unanimously to add Gonska to the police department roster on the condition that Hamill let another officer go.
Gonska said after the meeting, “I grew up in Sandisfield and went to school here, so I know the area very well. I lived in town for years, too.”