Warrant articles receive mixed review from budget committee

December 23, 2013
LITTLETON — After several meetings to discuss town spending proposals, the budget committee voted on the operating budget and warrant articles last week. Some town requests failed to garner majority support from the nine-member advisory body.

Committee members first discussed the town's operating budget. Finance Director Karen Noyes said the figure was recently revised. The new proposed budget, which would fund expenses of town departments, amounts to $7,934,268. This is $167,502 more than the approved 2013 operating budget.

The increase equals roughly a 20-cent rise in the tax rate. Chairman Steve Kelley lamented the tax increase called for in the proposal, but he found virtue in the town's effort. Kelley suggested the town's budget was "very responsible." Continuing, he said, "It doesn't have a lot of holes in it, or a lot of fluff."

When time came to vote, only members Rudy Gelsi and Dann opposed the operating budget. At previous meetings, both expressed concern about the impact of tax increases on many town residents.

A recommended 15-year bond for a new town garage passed. The structure, which will top $1 million, has the strong support of town officials, especially since large projects may need multiple town votes to authorize.

Bonded items require 60 percent support at town meeting. Town Manager Fred Moody supported the garage item by saying it was "important to get this before voters."

Gelsi asked how long the old garage, with several structural problems, could last. An exact prediction is not known, but Gelsi wondered if the town could wait a few years to finance a new garage. Moody noted that the town would not need to make its first payment on the garage until 2015, when overall town debt service costs were lower.

Voters would pay nearly $95,000 a year for the garage. When the recommendation vote arrived, members Eddy Moore, Diane Cummings, Tony Ilacqua, and Schuyler Sweet endorsed the garage bond. Jessica Daine, Gelsi, and Dann dissented.

Further positive verdicts were rendered on two river district warrant articles, expanded fire station coverage, and additional insurance for the department's call company. For $8,000 a year, the town can provide life, disability, and lost wage insurance for the call company.

For a total of $80,000, the river district articles would expand planning to complement the work of the River District Re-Development Commission. Sweet suggested that efforts to revitalize the Saranac Street area are "as important as the work done in the industrial park."

The low spending wing of the committee then started to achieve some victories. A proposal for $35,000 to refurbish the Opera House conference room lost on a three to five vote.

Additionally, a two-year lease program for two new police cruisers did not receive a positive recommendation. Kelley noted his concern about a policy to replace the department's vehicles at 85,000 miles. He said the cars should last longer than that. The two cruisers set for replacement both top 125,000 miles, however.

Selectman Milt Bratz said the town faces rising maintenance costs on older vehicles. The town authorized a new police vehicle last year. It took over for a cruiser that "clearly had to be replaced," Bratz sugged.

Even with the town's support, the committee defeated the $37,000 cruiser replacement plan with five no votes. Moore, Ilacqua, and Gelsi were in favor.

Kelley's tie breaking vote recommended a new highway truck, five to four. The truck purchase would require about $106,000 in tax dollars after use of $35,000 in fund balance.

The selectmen will have further discussions on the budget prior to the deliberative session and March's town meeting.

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