March 21, 2012LITTLETON — Last week voters appeared to send a message to their town leaders after being faced with a $7.75 million operating budget, 32 other warrant articles and a nonbinding referendum: "Yes," they want a high level of service, but they're going to be picky about how their money is spent.
Also decided was Milton Bratz's appointment to the Board of Selectman where he will join Marghie Seymour and Michael Gilman. He won against incumbent Ron Bolt in a vote of 831 to 568.
Not only did Article 2 — for the $7.75 million budget — fail in a 765 to 649 vote, a contingency article that would have provided an extra $52,584 for heating and vehicle costs also was defeated, which left the town with just the default budget of about $7.56 million.
The proposed budget had included one of two requested police cruisers, $15,000 for part-time police officers, funding for a full-time town manager position with benefits, and the increased costs for heating fuel and propane.
On Monday, Interim Town Manager Fred Moody said it looks as though the town needs to find a savings of about $194,000, and he had already met with department heads to begin determining the recommendations he will make to the Board of Selectmen.
As to whether any town positions may be on the chopping block like last year, Moody said he could neither confirm nor deny the prospect. He plans to have a preliminary proposition ready for the next Board of Selectman meeting on March 27, and a complete proposal for the following meeting currently scheduled for April 9.
Meanwhile a nonbinding referendum — put forth by the selectmen to determine what voters expect from the town's emergency services — revealed that the majority of people want the low-risk options.
The referendum, which was criticized for not including the specific cost of each level of service, gave voters three options each for the highway, police and fire departments. The first option was the "low-risk option" that offered a high level of service; the second option was the "moderate-risk option" that offered the approximate current level of service; and the third option was the "high-risk option" that offered a low level of service.
For the Highway Department, 609 voters wanted a high level of service, 590 were happy with the current level, and 99 thought it could be less. For the Police Department, 699 voters wanted a high level of service, 485 were happy with the current level, and 134 thought it could be less. For the Fire Department, 816 voters wanted a high level of service, 382 were happy with the current level, and 150 thought it could be less.
The results on many of the warrant articles somewhat appeared to reflect the desire for a high level of service, or to at least maintain what the town now has.
The highway department replacement truck, a sidewalk tractor and plow, a police cruiser and the department fire tanker all received the voters' blessing, though the cruiser had a close call and passed only by a slim 710 to 706.
Also approved was the use of undesignated reserve fund balance funds for the $150,000 repair and replacement of the Dells Road Culvert, all three sidewalk repair articles, and the improvements and maintenance for the Transfer Station, as well the hiring of a part-time employee for that department.
As for petitioned articles, a Northern Pass resolution against the project passed with a 858 to 512 vote, while an article seeking to increase the Board of Selectman from three to five members failed in a vote of 875 to 510.
The Parks and Recreation Department's call for $12,600 towards improvements at Apthorp Common and Remich Park received overwhelming approval with a 1,098 to 305 vote, and a request for $7,423.28 toward a video surveillance system also got the green light.
Further, in the second nonbinding referendum, voters resoundingly let their leaders know that they want future elections to be held at the Littleton Fire and Rescue Station. That received 430 votes to the Littleton Opera House's 105 and the Daisy Bronson Middle School Gymnasium's 45.
Seymour was out of town on Monday and unavailable for comment, but Gilman said he thought voters' message was clear that "they want the services, but they want them at a reasonable cost" — and that may require further examination of the way things are done in Littleton.
"I'm always optimistic," said Gilman, "and I think we can meet the requirements of the constituents." However, he shied away from being too specific about what he thinks the board will be able to accomplish this year given the results of last Tuesday. "That's something we will have to put our heads together about," he said.
As for former budget committee member Bratz, he said Monday that he has spent the past week reading up on procedures and regulations, while re-reviewing the budget and reaching out to residents to discuss their perspectives of where Littleton stands and is headed.
He said that last year he felt the cuts made during the budget committee's review in addition to those made at the deliberative session were too much, but he discovered that he was "wrong — it wasn't too big of a cut."
"The departments didn't close up, the town didn't shut down," he said.
This year, he was vocal about the budget committee honoring the intentions of last year's voters for at least another year or two. While he wouldn't say that he was "happy" about Tuesday's results, he understood about where votes were coming from and he's optimistic about where he thinks the $194,000 worth of cuts will have to be made.
"I would really not want to see anybody lose their job here," Bratz said, "and there should be enough play in the budget so that doesn't happen."
While he's just getting his feet wet in his new role, Bratz says he sees priorities in the future being the tax rate, maintaining the town's infrastructure and — with this year's upcoming renewal of collective bargaining agreements — keeping Littleton competitive as an employer.