According to a town-appointed committee, Palermo pays almost twice as much as similar municipalities around the state to support a town office that is open significantly fewer hours. The committee recently submitted its findings, which are now under consideration for inclusion on next year’s town meeting warrant.

The 12-member Compensation Committee, created at the annual town meeting in March,  compared the pay for all elected, appointed and hired positions in Palermo to those in five towns with similar populations, demographics and geography (waterfront property): Burnham, Plymouth, Searsmont, Swanville and Washington.

In its final report, submitted to the town in November, the group noted that the pay for Palermo’s selectmen, assessor and code enforcement officer “compared favorably” with the other towns.

“For Town Office staff, however, the analysis revealed significant differences,” committee members wrote in the report.

All of the other towns had either two or three town office staff members, working an average of 26.5 hours per week. The average annual total cost for those employees was $46,600. By contrast, Palermo has four employees at its town office. The office is open 16 hours per week, and salaries for 2011 are expected to be just under $110,000.

The committee recommended capping the cost of running the town office at $60,000 and trimming the staff gradually to two full-time positions with an additional employee for peak times, including the issuing of tax bills, collection of taxes and the creation of the annual town report.

It was also proposed that the positions be changed from elected to appointed, for the given reason of having more direct recourse if staff members aren’t doing their work. The committee also recommended increasing the office hours from 16 to 24 hours per week.

Not surprisingly, the report wasn’t well received by Palermo’s town office staff.

Treasurer Contessa Mancini said she agrees with some of the findings of the report, but said many of the recommendations “come across as angry,” as though the authors had an axe to grind.

Despite a note at the beginning of the report, apparently attempting to separate the issue from the individuals, Mancini said the scrutiny given to the pay of her colleagues and herself has at times felt very personal.

“This has completely killed any and all morale in this office,” she said.

Though non-salary benefits for town office staff wouldn’t change under the committee’s proposal, Mancini said having them formalized in writing has felt like an unnecessary imposition of control on a group of individuals already motivated to work.

And the overall message — work longer hours for less money — has been hard to stomach.

“There’s nothing in the Compensation Committee’s benefit package that’s positive or makes the job appealing,” she said.

Mancini has served as treasurer for three years and is up for reelection in March. Because the elections are held the day before town meeting, her compensation, if she is re-elected, would likely remain the same for another three years, even if the committee’s recommendations are adopted. Others staff members, including the tax collector and town clerk, whose terms expire in the next two years, would potentially be affected sooner.

Compensation Committee member Donald Barrett, who presented the group’s findings at a sparely-attended informational meeting on Dec. 10, said the report boils down to the fact that the town is paying too much for its office staff.

“We just had to look at figures,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to lose their job, but unfortunately a business can’t run when it’s overpaying for one part of it. The town office compensation was too much and there’s no way to substantiate that much. We have only between 1,200 and 1,300 people.”

While Barrett said the discussion of municipal compensation likely sprung from specific complaints among residents or committee members (“There’s always a lot of stories behind things,” he said), and when it came to the study, every effort was made to compare apples to apples.

What ultimately changes remains to be seen, he said, but one option that has been considered is to put the question back to the town office staff in the form of a take-it-or-leave-it offer:

“We want to bring the cost down to $60,000. Are you four willing to stay and split up that $60,000 a year and be open the 24 hours that was recommended? And that’s a place we may start,” he said. “… Who knows? That requires a large drop in pay for some of them.”

Barrett offered a rough estimate of the adjusted wages, taking into consideration the longer hours, and came up with an hourly wage of $13 and change, which he noted is almost double the minimum wage in Maine.

“It’s pretty hard to get that much money for a 24-hour-a-week, part-time job,” he said.

Town office staff currently are paid an annual salary, but measured against the hours of operation of the town office, all currently make more than $20 per hour.

Barrett said the $60,000 figure represents a compromise, as it would still be $14,000 higher than the average of the five other towns studied by the committee.

“We’re still paying more for essentially the same product,” he said. “We had no evidence that said the other towns were dissatisfied with their town office at the lower price they were paying.”

Barrett said the next step is for town selectmen to determine what, if any, parts of the report should be presented to residents at the annual town meeting in March.