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Town Manager Bill Keegan

Town officials have five weeks until the start of the new fiscal year to address a funding shortfall that otherwise could affect compensation for Town Manager William Keegan and Assistant Town Manager Michael Johns.

The dilemma stems from a fiscal 2020 budget number approved by voters at the May 13 annual town meeting which was roughly $213,000 less than initially sought by the administration and endorsed by the board of selectmen.

Among the casualties in the $79.1 million budget was $26,500 for central administration salary expenses, mostly tied to contractually obligated compensation for Keegan and Johns.

Speaking at the May 14 selectmen’s meeting, just 24 hours after the controversial town meeting vote, Keegan voiced frustration with the outcome, and especially the advisory committee recommendation that prompted it.

“That really creates a challenge, because … it’s not within the authority of town meeting or the advisory committee to set salaries,” he said. “I just want to be clear about that because they actually created a problem which is a legal challenge — and I’m not going to get into that issue one way or another, but it creates a problem as to how we fix it now.

“It’s a problem because we don’t have enough money within the budget to pay all the people in the department — I’m not sure how we address it at this point.”

Keegan acknowledged there are some discretionary items in the administrative budget, such as a $5,000 intern’s position. But even if that were eliminated a $21,000 funding gap would still exist.

Referring to the situation as “unfortunate,” Keegan suggested the advisory committee had specifically targeted Keegan and Johns, adding that he needed to think further — and likely would seek advice — on how best to proceed.

Characterizing himself as “a dedicated employee” who loves his job, Johns nonetheless pushed back at assertions he was hired at the same level of his predecessor, who had more experience in municipal administration.

“I do feel compelled to say that I am doing two jobs,” namely serving as assistant town manager and director of human resources, Johns said. “And the first time I’m called out on that I’ll be looking for other employment — I mean that.”

Johns said the verbal exchange that preceded last week’s town meeting vote was the fourth time his experience and credentials had been publicly called into question, and noted that communities are “desperately” trying to fill public-sector jobs requiring similar skill sets.

“I just want people to know that I love working here, but if I don’t meet the criteria of what’s needed, that’s OK,” he said.

Earlier that same evening, water & sewer Commissioner Michael Stanton had condemned the town meeting vote as “a coordinated, vicious attack on your livelihoods,” and apologized for not being more assertive in opposing it.

While arguably more temperate in language, Selectman David Feldman echoed those same sentiments several hours later,

“You guys didn’t deserve that last night,” Feldman said to Johns and Keegan. “Bill, 36 years in this business, you don’t have to apologize to anybody. You do your job with professionalism, and I think you’re underappreciated and are going to be sorely missed the day you leave.”

Feldman also suggested the issue of Johns’ experience is overblown.

“Who cares about your experience,” Feldman said. “You grew up in this town. You know how this town thinks. You know how this town feels. I don’t like the way it went down last night. They said it wasn’t personal, but to me it was personal — and I should have done more” to stop it.

The May 13 budget capped several weeks of often-contentious dialog surrounding the advisory board’s stated goal of reining in town spending growth. During that period Keegan on multiple occasions clashed with advisory chairwoman Susan Dring, not just over fiscal issues, but also their respective roles in town government.

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