| Joanne Cole, NGX |
Sending a clear message to the select board, the budget committee on February 26 recommended reversing the board’s proposed elimination of the assistant librarian position and cuts to library hours, and backed cutting some $200,000 from the fire/rescue budget. But “nothing is set in stone,” committee chair Peter Bragdon repeatedly stressed—not these preliminary votes, nor the numbers—until the budget committee reconvenes after a March 16 public hearing. Even so, the committee’s concerns about the size and key elements of the select board’s working FY21 budget were unmistakable.
Word of community opposition to the board’s draft budget has also reached the committee. The library trustees sent a letter saying that the select board’s proposed cuts would “decimate” the library’s operations. Committee members acknowledged hearing citizens’ concerns about a number of items in the budget, and rumors have circulated about voting down the entire budget at town meeting in protest. “I heard that, too,” member Jeff Hamilton said of the rumors. Others nodded in agreement.
The task of the budget committee is to review the select board’s draft budget and make independent budget recommendations for the board to consider. They are advisory only. Even firm budget numbers remain elusive at this point in the budget cycle; what the select board has publicly released is only provisional, with estimates and asterisks.
The budget committee’s February 26 meeting was the third successive night of scrutinizing the budget but the first in which committee members sharpened their pencils and raised hands to vote on possible dollars-and-cents changes to the specific line items and accounts preliminarily proposed by the select board.
Before reaching the high-interest topics of fire/rescue and the library, the committee dispatched about a dozen other items. But it was the fire/rescue budget account that proved pivotal, two-plus hours in.
With the select board’s fire/rescue figure of $647,939 on the table and a packet of additional information from department chief Toby Martin, members began a wide-ranging discussion of fire/rescue operations past and present, the impact on taxpayers, and possible alternatives. According to town documents, in 2018-19 the fire/rescue budget was $397,000. It jumped to $638,675 last year with the town’s commitment to two-person 24/7 firefighter/EMT staffing at the station and town ambulance transport.
The proposed increase in level of service and costs proved controversial at last year’s town meeting. But the impact of the new normal may have become fully clear only this year. “The people wanted 24/7 and they wanted a ride,” budget committee member Jean Libby told the group on Wednesday. “We voted as a town to take this on, but it’s also killing every budget we’ve got in town. Because we’ve got to do it. The people have asked for it and we have to do it,” said Libby.
As it is, committee chair Peter Bragdon said, chief Toby Martin has personally taken on six to eight 12-hour shifts some months, working as much as 24 hours on a Sunday and sometimes responding from his home, in order to manage his budget. “I thank him for every minute of it,” Bragdon said. “That’s a lot of hours.” Bragdon continued: “The fire chief is balancing the budget. If you added in those hours that he needs—that money—this budget would be even higher.”
Although the budget committee has no authority to dictate changes in policy or programs, they can recommend a concept along with a dollar figure. Bragdon did just that, proposing to reduce staffing at the station from two 24/7 firefighter/EMTs to one, and having United Ambulance handle transport from Auburn. Asked by Steve Libby for a round number rather than itemized line-by-line cuts, Bragdon proposed taking $225,000 off the fire/rescue bottom line, leaving $450,000, adequate for a more limited service plan according to his analysis. He acknowledged that savings would be offset by the revenues lost if the town ceases doing ambulance transports.
Under Bragdon’s scenario, United would respond from Auburn rather than keep a manned ambulance at the New Gloucester station as it did in the past, an arrangement that cost the town “several hundred thousand dollars” a year, he said. Select board chair Linda Chase sketched an uncertain picture of response times, costs, and savings, all dependent on what United is able and interested to do – currently unknown. She doubted that United would even be in a position to provide information about options in time for this budget season.
Also expressing caution, budget advisor Steve Libby noted that two responders are guaranteed under the present fire/rescue arrangement. If staffing at the station were reduced to one person, he said, “You’d need people to respond from home.” Would former members return to meet that need? Bragdon thought so. Interim town manager Paul First was less sure, noting that some have made other commitments since leaving the department. Both Steve Libby and First urged a transition period of a year for any new fire/rescue arrangement. “This department in the last three years has been through a lot of change,” First said. “Be careful.” He added, “Based on history, it’s important to make sure it’s a decision that’s well planned and well thought out.“
Jean Libby summed up the sentiment of the committee: “I think the people here feel as if the selectmen have got some homework to do: really look at this because it may be something we have to subcontract out somehow.”
Bragdon acknowledged uncertainties about practicability and costs, but pressed on, saying this is “not my end-all decision, but to get the discussion going through this process.” He made a motion to fund fire/rescue at $450,000. The committee voted 6-1 in favor, some citing the outsized impact the department’s current budget is having on other areas. Bragdon again cautioned that nothing is set in stone. “We may get this totally thrown out,” he admitted.
The committee turned next to the library. Resolution of fire/rescue funding with potential savings, at least for the moment, cleared a path to restore the assistant librarian position slated for elimination and to return to 40 open hours each week for “this jewel of a building,” as committee member Penny Hilton put it, and “essential town service.” Acknowledging straitened departmental budgets, the committed approved reducing the hours of the library director from 40 to 36, saving an estimated $6500 while maintaining benefits. Similar reductions have been recommended for the code enforcement officer and recreation director positions.
With the hour late, the committee wrapped up. They set Thursday March 5 to resume their work and March 16 at 7 p.m. for the public hearing. Even with community interest high, town officials believe the meetinghouse, with a capacity of 54, will be a large enough venue.
In other action earlier in the evening, the budget committee voted in favor of capping employee merit raises at 2.5 percent, down from the current 3 percent; and pared a request for a total of $10,400 in annual stipends for the select board down to $7800. They debated but ultimately left in place a requested budget of as much as $105,000 for a new town manager; struggled with a confusing picture of public works staffing and nicked that bottom line by some $9000; and whittled $3200 from the buildings and grounds account. What one account giveth, another taketh away, however. The elections budget will need an additional $4000, recorder and town clerk Sharlene Myers said, for a just-announced citizens’ charter initiative headed for the fall ballot.
One thing that everyone in the room—committee members, town officials, and select board members alike—appeared to agree on was to start the budget process earlier next time. One other point of possible agreement? That nothing about the budget is yet set in stone.