CHESTER – For about three and a half hours, the budget committee and board of selectmen discussed this year’s budget proposal, and while no definite numbers were decided it was the most in-depth discussion on the figures that has occurred this year during a selectmen’s meeting.
Earlier this year the selectmen sent on to the committee a budget with an 8.3 percent increase over current year spending. While the board spent a relatively short time in reviewing the numbers and changed very little in the proposals given to them by department heads, they also argued that everything in the numbers can be justified and that they were ready for a back and forth with the budget committee.
At the Thursday, March 13 meeting, the budget committee had many questions about the budgets they are to review, and discussions focused on everything from the need for fireproof filing cabinets and a postage meter to whether town fair ought to be funded in a budget line or given to the recreation commission to run through their revolving account.
Some discussion hinged on formatting changes made to the budget and how certain items were subsequently hard for the committee to analyze. Finance manager Joanne Smith answered many of the technical questions and offered solutions.
Also present to answer questions were chief Bill Burke and Lt. Aaron Berube of the police department and chief Rich Antoine of the fire department.
The meeting went relatively smoothly, not always the case between the two groups that often don’t see eye to eye. A few back and forth discussions between committee member Mike Weider and selectman chair Steph Landau over who was correct in assessing a particular problem were moved on by committee chair Rhonda Lamphere, who explained that there was too much to be gotten through that night to get mired in such arguments.
Some of the questions the committee had for the selectmen went unanswered, as the board has not yet finalized a few budget matters. While the board has been discussing replacing the town’s computers and has a general cost estimate, the committee suggested the selectmen put it out to bid. The selectmen are as yet unsure which computers need replacement and therefore how many computers they will seek to replace.
At the end of the meeting selectman Joe Castricone said he would do a walkthrough in the coming week with the town’s Information Technology (IT) vendor, Boston Systems, to get a better idea. Castricone also stated that he may see if he can get an informal bid from another vendor.
The selectmen also haven’t decided whether they’ll ask employees to shoulder more of the cost of their health care premiums. The health insurance line sees an estimated 11 percent increase this year and the committee asked whether the selectmen were thinking about having employees pay more.
Also discussed was the funding for the painting of the post office. While at a previous meeting the board had agreed to move forward with painting and replacing the windows on two sides, issues with regulations on lead paint disposal have put a halt on that project, and the selectmen were again unsure of how to move forward with the project, which was approved at last town meeting.
“It’s a white elephant,” said Landau of the building.
At the end of the meeting, Lamphere said it was important for the committee to have finalized numbers to adequately assess the budget.
“We need to be completely done in three weeks. We’re way behind the ball,’ said Lamphere.
Lamphere also asked that the selectmen push for back-up information when they receive proposals from departments, something Landau said they had done.
There was an extended discussion on the highway department’s proposed budget.
Committee member Chris Hadik pointed out that the budget has grown 43 percent in three years for what is largely routine maintenance.
Road Agent Mike Oleson has stated that had a $6 million road bond been approved in 2012, the town would have been in better shape and his budgets could have been flat.
Hadik noted that the committee needed to know which of several highway warrant articles the selectmen would be recommending to adequately review the figures in the budget.
The selectmen have not yet finalized any warrant articles, but plan to do so at their Thursday, March 20 meeting.
Weider complained at length about one of those articles, which seeks to remove $350,000 from a savings account tied to the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). Weider argued that the voters approved that $350,000 last year under the auspices of long-term funding of the CIP, and it would be difficult to go back to the voters this year and ask them to change those plans.
He said the point of funding projects in capital reserve funds tied to the CIP is to adequately plan and fund large scale projects while keeping the tax rate level. If that money is taken out this year, the town goes back to dealing with spikes and valleys in the rate.
Oleson is looking to use that money for the repair of Fremont Road, which is not on the CIP. The roads included in the CIP were put there under a previous road agent. Oleson is looking to get Fremont Road completed this year to prevent further deterioration and higher costs in future years.
Selectman Joe Hagan said that Oleson, as the road agent, was making prudent decisions on which roads needed work based on the practicalities in front of him.
“He is the road agent,” said Hagan.
Hadik and Lamphere suggested that the selectmen and Oleson may get support for a large bond this year, in part because the last road bond will be paid off.
Both groups agreed that a plan to renovate the bathhouse at the Wason Pond Conservation and Recreation Area should wait at least another year.
Lamphere also suggested during a discussion on expenditures at Wason Pond that the recreation commission use funds from its revolving account, which she said has about $53,000 in it, to fund some of the maintenance projects for the new fields there.
To close the night, the selectmen generally agreed that they would fund a line with $4,000 for the recreation commission to run town fair from, instead of letting the group use its revolving account as they had asked.