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Rowley

Rowley water budget draws heat at town meeting

The financial management of the town’s beleaguered Water Department drew close scrutiny Monday night from just over 100 residents who attended Town Meeting.

Residents voted 98 to 7 to pay a $15,875 fine to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which penalized Rowley after two former Water Department workers admitted to butchering deer at a town pumping station.

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Voters also approved spending $10,000 to develop a manual of operating procedures for the department to ensure protection of the public’s drinking water, and $6,000 on safety improvements such as purchasing new locks for the town’s three pumping stations. Both improvements are also required under the state settlement over the deer incident, officials said.

The three spending items were voted on in a Special Town Meeting, called to address financial matters for the current fiscal year before the annual meeting convened in the gymnasium of Pine Grove Elementary School.

One resident asked why the town was not seeking reimbursement from the two former workers, whose actions triggered the state fine.

“We should negotiate some sort of deal with these guys, because it’s really outrageous,” said Amy Treseler, who identified herself as a lawyer.

Robert Snow, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the town has not ruled out seeking restitution.

“Everything is on the table,” said Snow, who called the deer-butchering incident “atrocious.’’ He said the board is continuing to review the matter.

The two workers, Jason Kneeland and Jason Masse, were the town’s top two water pump plant operators. They admitted to butchering three deer at a town pump station on Boxford Road in late November. The two have since resigned from their jobs.

State environmental police charged both Kneeland and Masse with three counts of violating state deer tagging laws. They entered pleas of not guilty during their arraignment April 23 in Newburyport District Court, and are due in court on May 20 for a pretrial hearing, according to the court clerk’s office.

After the town reported the deer-butchering, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the pumping station shut down while tests were done to see if there was any risk to the public drinking water supply.

After tests showed the water was not contaminated, the well was put back in operation last month, said Joe Ferson, a spokesman for the agency.

The state fined the town $25,875, but agreed to suspend $10,000 if the town complied immediately with steps to improve Water Department operations.

Ferson confirmed on Monday that the town is complying with the state’s order.

The selectmen and water commissioners formed a panel to review spending and operations of the department. Separately, the town was already under order by the state to build a $12 million treatment plant to improve water quality.

Snow, who noted the plant is due to start operating this year, tried to assure residents that selectmen are closely monitoring the Water Department.

“We are watching everything that [happens] in that department,” he said.

Still, one resident questioned why the town’s water superintendent, John Rezza, is due to get a pay raise on July 1, when his salary will increase from $64,126 to $75,538, according to the warrant.

“I just want to understand, why the superintendent is getting a [nearly] $12,000 raise . . . with all the problems there have been in the Water Department,” said resident Linda Cook.

David Petersen,a member of the town’s personnel board, said the salary increase is part of a broader effort to put Rowley’s employee salaries on a par with area communities. A salary survey conducted last year for the town showed the average salary for a water superintendent in communities similar to Rowley is $74,802, he said.

“We don’t evaluate performances,” Petersen said. “We evaluate job description, and what the position requires for education and training. It has nothing to do with how a person performs.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe
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