February 05, 2014BETHLEHEM — Police spending has been the hottest item in town this budget season. At Monday evening's deliberative session, a motion was offered to reduce the police budget by $24,000. The idea was offered by Dick Robie in an effort to keep the department from funding another full-time patrol officer.
After nearly an hour of discussion, voters defeated Robie's motion. The margin was 25 in favor, with 30 opposed.
The value of a seventh full-time policeman in town was discussed at several recent meetings of the selectmen. Originally, a three to two vote cut spending for a new officer, but later input from Police Chief Michael Ho Sing Loy led one of the selectmen to change his vote and return the funding to the budget.
As proposed, the police budget would rise to $541,331, from the 2013 total of $513,740. This would amount to a 5.3 percent increase.
Robie was quick to offer his motion when the operating budget was opened for discussion. "I stand here for my own sanity," he said. Robie did not see the need for a seventh officer at the police department. "This town is no bigger today than when I was born," he said.
Robie thought the town likely wanted to preserve funding for new officer, but he proposed the spending reduction anyway. "I've got another year to be ashamed of myself if I didn't say something," he said.
Peter Roy supported having another officer. He likes the idea of 24/7 police coverage in town. The decrease in overtime that would come with another position would decrease the exhaustion in the current patrol officers, Roy said.
Pat Doughty, who seconded Robie's motion to cut the funding, then spoke. He praised the department's work, but opposed funding another position. "We don't need that many full-time officers," he said.
Ellen Levitt also rose to support Robie's motion. With more than 40 years in town, Levitt said she is concerned about how people on fixed incomes can afford high taxes. "You have to start cutting somewhere," she said.
Selectman Mike Culver, who defended Ho Sing Loy's request for the funding, said the department needs the $24,000. He believed Bethlehem required "a minimum of six officers to do the job the way it's currently being done," which includes more than 900 annual overtime hours.
Culver did not see how the town could sustain 24/7 police coverage without funding for another full-time officer. The spending would amount to less than 11 cents on the tax rate, he concluded. "I feel that money is worth it," Culver said.
Chairman Jerry Blanchard, another supporter of the funding, said department personnel should not have to work so much overtime. Based on his experience as a military policeman, Blanchard said officers require "time away from the job to recharge."
"Think twice, maybe three times," Blanchard asked voters, "before you vote for" Robie's proposed funding cut.
Voters did have some more time to consider Robie's idea. He made a successful request for a secret ballot vote on his funding reduction motion. After each ballot was counted, the 25 to 30 tally was announced. This was a defeat for Robie's $24,000 proposed cut.
The town's overall proposed budget advanced easily to the March 11 town meeting ballot. Most other warrant articles were put on town meeting ballot with limited debate and wide victory margins. These included funding for several equipment reserve funds.
Deliberative session voters also advanced two land sale items to next month's ballot. Article 16 would subdivide off part of the burned out 2323 Main Street property for use by the adjacent Bethlehem Elementary School. The remaining part of the former Cedar Croft apartment building would be sold. Maryanne Rennell hopes to buy the lot to build a new restaurant and ice cream shop. The article went to the ballot with only one dissenting vote.
The other land sale article would start a process to sell a town-owned lot on Pleasant Street. If the lot would not sell through auction or sealed bid, Habitat for Humanity could study the site for 12 months. The article would then grant the selectmen the right to then sell the lot to Habitat for $1. The charity organization might then build a house on the site in 2015. This article advanced to the ballot without dissent.