May 23, 2012N. HAVERHILL — Last Thursday evening, loss of funding for a bus service and the County Attorney's request for more staff dominated the question-and-answer portion of a public hearing for the Grafton County commissioners' proposed budget.
Tri-County Transit, which links Lancaster, Whitefield and Littleton and is part of Tri-County Community Action Program, requested $15,000 for fiscal year 2013, but the commissioners recommended that it get nothing. In years past it had received a budget of $8,000 from the county.
According to the budget proposal, ridership for the bus dropped from 15,405 in fiscal year 2010 to 12,137 in 2011 — the cost per trip more than doubled from $12.85 to $26.84. However, Brenda Gagne, transit operations manager, countered that the cost increase and drop in ridership was due in part to the bus breaking down repeatedly and a delay in getting a replacement.
Feeling is strong among those who rely on the service to get to doctors appointments, jobs and even to purchase groceries and other goods. The bus has been in operation since 2006, and many audience members said this is not the time — when so many people are struggling financially — to be making cuts to one of the few low-cost transportation options in the North Country.
"Please don't turn us out to pasture," said Frank Lovely of Lancaster. "Please help us … I beg you, please don't take it [the bus] away."
His sentiment was echoed by several others, including a man who uses the bus to attend AA meetings and a disabled veteran who requires services in Littleton.
Commissioner Raymond Burton said he thought that he and his fellow commissioners would revisit the transit recommendation at their weekly Tuesday meeting (after the deadline for this paper). Even though the recommended budget was to be passed to the Grafton County Delegation for further review and final say after the public hearing, the commissioners could make addendums.
Though few criticisms were raised by audience members, County Attorney Lara Saffo felt it was important to make sure everyone understood her office's request for additional full-time staff.
The proposed budget includes funds for an assistant county attorney and a legal secretary, which Saffo said she realized is a lot when governments are trying to trim budgets. Still, she said, for the past 18 months her office has seen a caseload increase every month — a 38-percent increase from 576 referrals in 2010 to 795 referrals 2011 — and the trend continues.
"We've just seen an enormous spike in cases," said Saffo.
"It's not like it can go anywhere but to my office," she added later. "Felonies can only go to my office."
According to Saffo, the attorney's office hasn't added staff since 2005 but case referrals have increased by 45.6 percent. Burglaries more than doubled in one year, she said.
"I had a public defender recently mention to a judge in chambers what their caseload is; ours is almost double," Saffo said, adding that in comparison to the average caseload for attorneys in other counties, Grafton's numbers lead the way.
The commissioners released their proposed budget at the beginning of May, and last week was the public's chance to weigh in on what they will see reflected in their tax bills. Fiscal Year 2013 includes an overall recommended budget increase of $1,709,384, or 4.76 percent, and an extra $1,698,765 in taxes will be needed.
Commissioner Michael Cryans said that while the 8.75 percent increase in the amount to be raised by taxes may seem high, it is less than officials expected would be needed in order to bring the new jail online. Also, he pointed out, the 8.75 percent increase is for just a fraction of every property owner's tax bill totals, which also include town, school and state taxes.
However, while Cryans and Burton were in favor of the budget, Commissioner Omer Ahern Jr. was opposed to the overall final proposal. The commissioners did agree on the funds allotted to the Department of Corrections, said Cryans on Thursday, but in April 24's commissioners meeting minutes, Ahern said he felt that significant reductions could still be made in other departments.
Revenues are expected to be almost flat with an increase of only about $10,600. The recommended budget is $37,595,179, and $21,107,808 would need to be raised through taxes. During fiscal year 2012, which ends June 30, taxpayers were responsible for $19,409,043.
The budget now heads to the Grafton County Delegation's executive committee, which will work on the budget until the full 26-member delegation votes on it June 25.