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Supervisor's Corner: Leadership and Decision Making During Turbulent Times

By Webster Town Supervisor Tom Flaherty


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The week of March 16-20 was challenging to all of us within this COVID-19 situation. Fear and anxiety ran rampant and threatens to be a bigger problem than people actually contracting COVID-19. Some feared getting COVID-19. Some feared their loved ones who had compromised immune systems and/or respiratory issues getting it. Some feared the financial ramifications of lost income from the private business they own or work getting shut down.


One of the bigger challenges to me as Town Supervisor in making decisions for the 15 departments and 230+ Town of Webster employees was the quickly changing landscape of the “rules of engagement”. One day Governor Cuomo mandates that 50% of non-essential staff needs to be out of the facility they work out of and positioned to work from home... then two days later, it was 75%... and finally, on Friday, March 20, it ended at 100%.


At my private business I owned for 25 years, we were built to work remotely. Unfortunately, the Town of Webster government is the 180-degree opposite and is built to NOT work from outside the facility out of which you work. This made Governor Cuomo’s mandates to “get them out of the office and working from home” exponentially more challenging. The IT staff at the town did an amazing job getting as many employees able to work from home by Monday, March 23 as possible.


Another challenge to this was the potential that Webster town employees may end up being home, NOT working, and getting paid their normal salary/hourly wages. This weighed on me. I knew that many of the 45,000 citizens in Webster were hurting financially from the business they owned or worked for closing. It did not sit well with me that these same hurting citizens had paid real estate taxes to the Town of Webster and now those tax dollars were being used to pay town employees who were not working. Some said to me, “The payroll is in the budget, so what is the big deal?” Depending on how you do the math, the town annual budget is between $25 and $30 million, of which approx. $15 million is collected from real estate taxes. The annual aggregate payroll to all town employees is almost $15 million, so to me it IS a big deal if employees are getting paid to not work. Once they come back to work in 2, 3, 4, etc. weeks, there will be a backlog of work and we’ll have to pay overtime, which will just further hit the taxpayers in the 2021 budget or from the general fund balance. It was not an easy decision, but leading means you have to make tough decisions and sometimes you will not know if they are the right or wrong decisions for a long time.


The decision was ultimately made to not pay town employees who were home and not working. It was made knowing 18 other towns in Monroe County did NOT make that decision and are “paying all their employees even if they are home not working”. It was made with the town board being split on this concept, but with the understanding and respect of even the town board members against it. It was made being mindful of factors including but not limited to full-time versus part-time status, unions, and the current state of emergency we’re in at the state and county level. It was made while collaborating with the department heads to find ways to have these employees WORK so they can get paid as of Monday, March 23, even if the job we come up with for them during this COVID-19 situation is NOT what they normally do. As long as the job they will be doing will benefit the town and its citizens today and in the future, I can get behind it. It was made knowing I could NOT go in front of the 45,000 citizens of Webster and say with a straight face, “We’re all in this together...” if the facts were we were not and private company citizens were not getting paid to be home not working... but Town of Webster employees were.


People’s opinion on this decision will vary. Some will think it is great while others will think I am the devil incarnate. If I had my druthers, all decisions made by the town board and/or me would have 100% consensus, but that will never happen and people in leadership positions need to be cognizant of that. However, I hope that people in leadership positions make measured and pragmatic decisions based on a moral compass and the good of the whole community. 

In closing, I heard a story this past week about Cathie Thomas, the Webster town supervisor 20 years ago. It essentially was that she was counseled on a decision she was about to make that it would cost her votes and she replied, “I don’t make decisions based on whether it gets me or costs me votes. I make decisions that are good for the community as a whole.” I think I would like Ms. Thomas and hope I get to meet her someday.

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***Please consider donating to Webster Online’s GoFundMe to keep this independently-run news site operating and Webster residents informed during these challenging times.***

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