Leaders from both towns are headed towards making a final decision early next month about whether to combine the finance departments of Hamilton and Wenham.
The move wouldn’t combine the money but instead the finance administration functions. Under the proposal, Hamilton Finance Director Deborah Nippes-Mena would head the department.
, when the Boards of Selectmen from both towns heard about the plan that calls for combining both departments and then using the savings to hire a payroll and benefits administrator.
A combined Board of Selectmen meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 5 at . That’s where Selectmen from both towns will hear the answers to many of the questions that were raised the last time both boards met and heard a preliminary outline of the proposal.
The Dec. 5 meeting, Wenham Town Administrator Jeff Chelgren said, would be a time to “possibly consider some action by the two Boards of Selectmen on this issue.”
“The issue is important to both of us,” said Molly Martins, chairman of the Wenham Board of Selectmen when the board met earlier this week. “We both have similar concerns.”
Chelgren said that many of the answers would be available in writing next week, in advance of the combined meeting.
Since both boards met together to hear the proposal for the first time, the boards should meet together again to hear the answers to the questions and further discuss it, said Wenham Selectman Patrick Wilson.
In Hamilton, Town Manager Michael Lombardo is compiling the answers to many of the Selectmen’s questions there, too.
Lombardo said he is hoping a final decision on whether to go ahead with the plan by mid-December or late December at the latest.
“We can’t leave this hanging out there,” he said.
The plan is not proposed to cost either town any more, but instead use the savings to hire a payroll and benefits administrator – “a more junior person” that, in Hamilton, can free up Mena to do more “big picture things” and help develop more financial reports for the Finance Committee and public, Lombardo said.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for us,” Lombardo said.
Lombardo also noted that Wenham is “under the gun” since for a job with the Salem school department earlier this month.
An employment ad for the position, which is listed as an interim job, is running on Monster.com and in The Eagle-Tribune. It sets a deadline for applications of Nov. 28.
“It’s not just a Wenham problem, it is also our problem,” said Jennifer Scuteri, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen, noting that the town’s existing staff and workload has put the finance department in an “unsustainable position.”
While Wenham “might be in a slightly worse position,” Scuteri said, “this could be a win-win for both.”
Scuteri said, if the plan moves forward, she wants to make sure the split in costs for the new department are allocated equally to both Hamilton and Wenham.
“I think residents are going to want to see we spent some time on that and it is fair,” she said.
Some possible methods include calculating the split based on the current finance department budgets, looking at how many bills each department currently processes or looking at the split in property values in the two towns, she said.
When the plan was unveiled, Wenham Selectman John Clemenzi had the most questions. This week, Hamilton Selectman Jeff Hubbard raised one new question - he wanted to know how many functions in the finance department could be shifted to outside companies. Some payroll duties are already handled by outside companies, Mena said.
“I think it is going to be a battle bringing on another staff member,” Hubbard said, adding that he sees it as a “difficult sell.”
Two deal killers to the merger are if Wenham does not switch from VADAR – it’s finance software – to MUNIS, which Hamilton uses and also if Wenham does not choose to have Mena head the new department and wants to post the position, Scuteri said.
Lombardo said the transition to the new department cannot happen at the same time the towns would be recruiting and hiring a new department head.
The decision is important, and significant, for both towns, Martins said.
“I think it has a lot of potential but we want to go into it with full information,” she said.