CHESTER – After a meeting between the two groups on Thursday, March 27, it looks like the budget committee and the selectmen will be going to Town Meeting with two different budgets for voter review. The two groups could not agree on the numbers last Thursday, and by the end of the night their budgets were about $140,000 apart.
The budget committee has the lesser number, with a bottom line coming in at $3,548,416 before debt, about a 2 percent increase over current year spending.
The selectmen made little argument over the budget committee’s numbers, as chair Rhonda Lamphere went through each budget in turn and explained where changes had been made from the number presented by the selectmen earlier in the year.
That original number showed about a 7 percent increase over the current year.
The budget committee held two meetings that week to further review the numbers, one with requested backup from the department heads.
While there were a few small sums over which the groups don’t see eye to eye, the major numbers come by way of the highway and police departments and whether employees should pick up more of their health care premium costs.
The budget committee included a 5 percent increase for employees’ health insurance coverage, bringing the amount up from 10 percent for individuals and couples and 15 percent for families.
While the budget committee stated that five hourly and one salaried employee would take home less money next year in their paycheck because of it, the selectmen said they had calculated that as many as nine salaried employees would be in that position.
The budget committee’s plan would take about $20,000 out of the budget and put it on employees.
A 3 percent salary raise pool is built into the numbers.
Saying that only one salaried employee would be “upside down” with the higher premium coverage, Lamphere noted that the employee could take on extra details to make up the difference, indicating that person was a police officer.
Later in the meeting, Lt. Aaron Berube raised concerns to the selectmen that asking an employee to work more to make up the money taken from a check to pay for benefits was not a fair way to look at the matter.
After the budget committee left, the selectmen made it clear that they were not comfortable with forcing an increased contribution by employees. It was agreed that changes to such numbers were under the selectmen’s purview, not the budget committee.
The main disagreement with the police budget is the incorporation of a cruiser into the budget, rather than into a warrant article. The budget committee wants to see the vehicle in a warrant article, largely because that way it can be connected with the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).
If the town saves money in a capital reserve fund for a cruiser, as it has traditionally done, it can collect impact fees (governed by the CIP) from new development to help pay for that car. Impact fees are paid for by developers so that new homes help offset the cost of the services their residents will be utilizing. While the town has set up a program for collecting impact fees for highway and recreation, there is no program for the police department.
Budget committee member Chris Hadik said that even if it were only a few dollars, it was owed to taxpayers to collect those impact fees, but selectmen questioned that, as the program to collect impact fees for police isn’t in place.
Lamphere said she had been assured that the town could collect impact fees for police by the end of the fiscal year. In response, selectman Joe Hagan said that without that methodology in place, there wasn’t a benefit to putting the cruiser into a warrant article this year in hopes of collecting money that could not yet be collected.
The highway budget comprises the largest difference between the two group’s budgets.
The budget committee took out $10,000 asked for in the road agent’s pay line, $60,000 in asphalt for road repair, $8,000 in the winter overtime line for town employees and $10,000 in engineering.
Road agent Mike Oleson has asked for an additional $10,000 in the road agent line because it is being overspent each year.
While Hagan said it was wise to budget for what is being spent in the lines, Hadik said the road agent is an elected position, not a paid position, and at this point they may as well make it a salaried job.
In nearby Sandown, the highway portion of the Director of Public Works salary totals $65,928 plus benefits.
Oleson is looking for $15,000 to $20,000, as a typical year fluctuates between $15,000 and $18,000. He said at the meeting that simply to check on the department in the morning and at night costs $9,100 annually at $35 an hour. That’s a gross, not net, amount, as Oleson is acting in essence as a subcontractor.
Hadik said if the road agent position is a business, it should be competitively bid. “How can one person get the job and then charge what they’d like for it?” he asked.
Oleson later said the people have control over the position, as they choose the road agent every two years.
After the budget committee left, the selectmen agreed to keep the asphalt cost in the budget, as well as the overtime and engineering. They split the difference between the road agent pay to $5,000.
Oleson stated that was fair.
On a motion by Joe Castricone, the selectmen also took $1,700 out of the library budget, bringing that number to $157,000. While he didn’t go into detail on how the number was arrived at, Castricone said he wanted to cut the budget because the library pays for 100 percent of its employee health care costs and is giving a raise to an assistant director who has not been with the library for a year yet.
At a meeting earlier that week with the budget committee, at which Castricone was present, representation from the library explained that while the town was covering 100 percent of director Tim Sheehan’s health plan, it had been agreed that in the coming year he would pick up 10 percent to bring him in line with the town.
Contacted after the meeting, Sheehan defended the raise for the assistant director. Not only does the library staff work hard and deserve raises, but the assistant director position was being paid at a rate under what similar towns paid, he said. Elsewhere the starting salary would be $18 an hour; in Chester, after the raise contemplated, it would be $16.72.
When the library trustees and Sheehan presented their budget to the selectmen earlier this year, they noted that they had a high turnover rate because of relatively low pay.