Government Spotlight

Public hearing on budget comes and goes quietly

| Joanne Cole |

Committee members and town staff outnumbered citizens at the March 10 public hearing on the budget committee’s proposed FY21-22 budget. Following the thirty-minute public hearing, the committee formally voted to send its budget recommendations unchanged to the board of selectmen.  The board will now finalize budget articles to be presented to voters by ballot at the June 8 municipal election. 

Only three residents spoke at the hearing.  One asked about paving priorities and Woodman Road specifically, another offered a clarification about the NG Cable TV budget, and a third questioned the proposed 36-hour per week staff salaries. 

The meeting opened with perspectives from chair Jean Libby, select board liaison Peter Bragdon, and town manager town Brenda Fox-Howard. 

Libby began by summarizing the most-current budget figures, which include town, school, and county budgets. Together they total $12.6 million in expenditures, $3.9 million in revenues, and a resulting $8.7 million net, Libby said.

If the current budget were to become final, Libby said, the mil rate would increase from its current $13.65 per thousand to $14.23, up 4.25%.  A $250,000 home would be taxed at $3,558 under the new rate, compared with $3,413 this year. 

Select board liaison Bragdon noted that the town-only budget accounts for $3.54 of the current $13.65 mil rate and the lion’s share is attributable to MSAD 15.  The town share would increase by 17 cents to $3.71 under the committee’s proposed budget, he said.  He also noted that the budget uses $500,000 from the town’s undesignated fund balance to moderate the increase in the tax rate. 

Town manager Fox-Howard cited increased costs across the board and inclusion of the Stevens Brook project as resulting in higher expenditures.

Residents then spoke up.  Michael Lang of Woodman Road wanted to know why Woodman Road was not on the paving schedule, particularly if funding for it had previously been approved.  Select board liaison Linda Chase said that no bond or funds have been set aside for the work. She explained that although Woodman Road was initially on the schedule for next year, along with unpaved portions of Meadow Lane and Ayer Road, the select board removed them, deciding “it is not fiscally sound to do them at this point.”  Chase added that the board might revisit paving the roads in the future.

Lang responded that when his family moved in 15 years ago, they were told Woodman Road would be paved, and each year it has been delayed.  They have made phone calls to no avail, he said. Lang added, “The road right now is in terrible shape, I mean absolutely terrible shape.”

Discussion moved from Woodman Road specifically to paving in general.  The town has deferred paving and resurfacing projects every year, manager Fox-Howard said, resulting in a significant backlog and increased costs each year. 

To catch up over the next six or seven years, $600,000 would be needed in the coming year alone, Fox-Howard said.  (The proposed FY21-22 budget allocates $342,554 for paving, up from $290,686 in the current year.)  “The people need to speak up” about the issue to the budget committee and select board, Fox-Howard said, if they want paving to be a higher priority.

Next up was NG Cable TV committee vice chair Patti Mikkelsen with a clarification.  Mikkelsen wanted residents to understand that what looks like an increase in the Meetinghouse/Cable TV budget and “might raise eyebrows” is in fact only a no-cost accounting change.  No additional taxes are involved, Mikkelsen assured viewers, just a change in how NGTV’s emergency equipment line, funded by a capital grant, is shown on the town books at the auditors’ request.

Focusing on proposed 36-hour per week salaries for the town planner, library director, and parks and recreation director, resident Julie Fralich asked that the positions be restored to their pre-pandemic 40-hour levels.  “Our primary assets in our town are the people that we hire,” Fralich said.  Their compensation measures “the respect we give them” and should reflect their value to the community, she said.

Fralich pointed to current and coming challenges that need town staff.  “We are growing,” she added, and “there are so many issues facing us now.”  Fralich emphasized the forthcoming comprehensive plan, two years in development, and said it has many elements specifically involving recreation, planning, and the library, as well as a broader vision and goals. 

“We have to address infrastructure and roads and equipment” in the budget, Fralich acknowledged, “but we also just set forth a vision for our town, where we want to be in the future and the issues that are important to us.”  Of the proposed budget, she said, “I don’t see that vision represented in the form of the support for the manpower and the staff it’s going to take to implement that vision.” 

Later, manager Fox-Howard reiterated her own request to restore the 40-hour staff salaries, included in her budget but subsequently cut by the select board.  Fox-Howard cited the hours documented on timesheets as well as the extra effort staff put in, including evening and weekend hours. 

“You guys are so lucky to have the staff you do,” she said, staff who are “always willing” and who “put in these extra hours.”  “You have people that care about this community,” Fox-Howard said.  “I’m just imploring you to maybe reconsider those hours.”

The budget committee did consider but in the end declined any increase in hours, with member Penny Hilton asking that the 40-hour issue be revisited next year.  The committee appeared to defer to the select board’s decision to cut the hours and to suggestions that the 36-hour compensation accords with hours actually worked, although board liaison Linda Chase said timesheets show staff are within their hours “most of the time.” “Typically they’re not working a ton of hours,” Chase said, “they’re close to that threshold between 36 and 40.”  Budget committee and select board representatives did not address whether 36-hour staffing is adequate to implement the comprehensive plan.

With minimal further discussion, the committee voted to send their budget recommendations unchanged to the board of selectmen.  The board will next finalize budget articles for the warrant to go to voters on a June 8 ballot.

Video of the March 10 budget committee meeting and public hearing can be viewed here. Links to the committee’s budget documents can be found here.