Ossipee budget season "tumultuous" says Selectman Richard Morgan

January 30, 2014
OSSIPEE — The Board of Selectmen and the Budget Committee here continue work on the 2014 budget, in what one selectmen calls a "tumultuous budget season."

At the core of the disagreement between the two boards is the massive spike in the cost of providing ambulance service to the town. The cost of that service contract in 2013 was $199,000 and now for 2014 is a whopping $562,822. That near-tripling of the ambulance cost has budget makers scrambling to make up the difference, mainly at the expense of town employees.

Budget Committee members made no recommendations to scale back on services provided by the town. Instead, in a charge led by committee member Joe Goss of West Ossipee, they voted unanimously to make cuts to all departments, targeting the employee health insurance lines of each budget. As of press time, the total amount of their cuts equaled $232,487.43, almost enough to make up for the increased ambulance cost. Their argument is that town employees should be contributing more of a percentage towards the cost of their health insurance plans. About half of the town's employees are members of the union and the percentage employees pay is spelled out in the three-year union contract that was recently adopted and will go into effect upon ratification at town meeting in March.

At the Jan. 27 selectmen's meeting, Selectman Richard Morgan spoke at length about the ambulance contract and potential bind the Budget Committee cuts will put on running the town government.

The Budget Committee actually has no authority under state law over the terms of the union contract or to dictate line-by-line how the selectmen spend the town's total operating budget. They merely make suggestions and then vote on the total bottom line. Then the budget goes to town meeting voters in March who set the final number. It is that voter-approved total bottom line that selectmen have to work. With the town operating on a calendar year rather than a fiscal year, nearly one quarter of the annual budget is already spent before voters approve the total year's budget. Because of that, said Morgan, any cuts made at town meeting are "magnified."

Morgan said the selectmen have "practiced due diligence" to compensate for the spike in the ambulance budget but, he added, so few areas in the town budget are "discretionary." Morgan said that if the cuts are too deep, the selectmen will be forced to make some tough decisions and laying off town employees would not be out of the question. But, he said, laying off people could also mean reducing services that townspeople have become accustomed to including a police department at its current level, road maintenance, and a transfer station operating at its current schedule. "Our highway department does a job that is as good as many and better than most. That comes with a price. If taxpayers want to continue the level of service they enjoy, that comes with a price," said Morgan. When asked if he would forego paying the non-profit agencies that are set to receive $130,000 in this year's budget rather than laying off employees, Morgan indicated he would lean that way.

Going into the Jan. 29 Budget Committee meeting, selectmen were set to present a total operating budget and set of warrant articles (including the new ambulance contract) totaling $6,385,245.43, which is just about $46,000 more than the total 2013 budget.

Thanks to a healthy surplus account, selectmen will be able to dip into that and apply a substantial amount to offset the increase in the budget and decrease the impact on the property tax rate. Morgan credited the diligence of his fellow selectman Harry Merrow with financial management that created a healthy surplus that can be taken from to offset budget spikes. "The Town of Ossipee, financially, is in very good shape. I give Harry a lot of credit for that. And the town has no long term debt – at all," said Morgan.

Ossipee taxpayers can save $130,000 of the cost of their ambulance contract but have to vote in the total amount at Town Meeting. Three days after Ossipee's Town Meeting March 12, Effingham will have its Town Meeting and will be voting whether or not to also contract with CarePlus Ambulance for an annual price of $130,000. If voters in that town approve the deal, Ossipee's contract price will be reduced by $130,000.

Ossipee selectmen have negotiated a two-year contract rather than a three-year ambulance contract. Morgan said this is because the towns of Freedom, Madison, Eaton, and Tamworth are currently in a joint contract with CarePlus that ends in two years. Keeping Ossipee on that same schedule will mean that in two years six towns in the area will be looking into entering a new ambulance contract which may give all of the towns more bargaining power.

Morgan called the near-tripling of ambulance service cost "a tough pill to swallow" but that there is "absolutely no way the town can go without ambulance service" and "has no other options" right now. He said the Board of Selectmen is committed to looking at many different options including having discussions with the town's three fire departments and nine fire precinct commissioners about whether or not it makes sense for the town to have its own ambulance service, rather than contracting out for that service.

Morgan urged his fellow townspeople to attend the upcoming Budget Committee public hearing being held on Wednesday, Feb. 5, beginning at 7 p.m., at Ossipee Town Hall. At this hearing the Budget Committee will present their prosed 2014 budget, hear public comment, make any changes necessary, and vote on the final 2014 budget that will be presented to Town Meeting.

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