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Finance Committee with HRC, Historic Districts, and Department Budgets

(Catching up on notes; here is 3/19. Black text is mostly objective, red text is mostly subjective in nature.)

First we heard from the Human Rights Commission on their requested budget increase. They want to do a training of 20-40 town employees about how to react to a human rights issue, communication protocols, and things like that. They had support from the Town Manager, selectmen, and Superintendent. Their budget was approved 15-2. I voted against this. For this to work, it has to have buy-in from the manager and superintendant. It sounded like everyone thought it would be a nice idea, but no one would put any money from their training budget to support it. To me, that’s a red flag. The event will happen but I’m doubtful that the attendance will be high enough, and of the right people. The HRC needed to get a stronger buy-in from the people who will be trained for me to support this.

Next up was the Historic District Commission looking for a few hundred dollars increase. This passed 16-1 with a suggestion that the board look at charging a filing fee for the larger, more expensive hearings.

The committee then reviewed the current FY08 draft budget. It is $650,000 worse than the draft that we reviewed on 1/30. The biggest change is that anticipated net state aid is $400k less than forecast, and Minuteman came in $225k more than forecast. Many other items changed up and down, but those are the largest. This means that we can’t save money in the stabilization fund, and we have to find $150k to cut. The 5-year plan is back to exactly that – it doesn’t stretch to 6 years.
We approved budgets for relatively small amounts for other committees and commissions.

The Fire Department budget was next. Dan O’Neill pointed out the costs of the departure of two people in the department. One is highly trained in HazMat, and the other runs the EMS recertification program. Replacing them will be difficult and expensive.

The overtime budget is far over again – $200,000 is anticipated. Part of that will be covered by the unused salaries for vacant positions. The source of the remaining $117,000 deficit has not been determined. It appears that the minimum manning requirement cannot be met by the current number of fire fighters. They’ve tried to make it work for three years, and each year has failed by hundreds of thousands of dollars. There needs to be a policy change, either increasing the hiring or modifying minimum manning.

It was noted that there is an opportunity to generate more revenue by running more ambulances and picking up a higher fraction of the medical calls, particularly paramedics.

The budget passed 17-0-1. I abstained. While I agree that a policy change can bring overtime under control, I hesitate to vote for this budget without a more specific plan. Without a change, ’08 will just be a 4th year of large budget overruns.

The Water and Sewer Enterprise fund was next. There were a large number of changes in this budget. The original draft looks like it had a slew of errors. There was discussion about the selectmen’s decision to move future water debt to the water and sewer rate rather than to the general tax. We heard about changes to the capital spending.

One of the warrant articles proposed by Gordon Jamieson was to increase water and sewer transfer to the health insurance budget. The subcommittee looked into the question and agreed. Specifically, the cost of retirees was not included. They bumped the transfer from $400k to $530k.

Once the errors and adjustments were cleared up, there were two big differences: 1) it spends less reserve money and 2) it pays out a lot more into the health insurance budget. That payment to the health insurance budget will help quite a bit with the deficit in the draft budget. The budget was approved.