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Critics take on Wakefield committee's budget slashing


Deep cuts proposed to planning, building department budgets


January 14, 2010
WAKEFIELD — The budget committee took some heat for its decision to slash funding for the building and planning departments at Tuesday night's public hearing on the town budget.

On Monday, the budget committee cut building department's budget from about $112,000 to $75,000 and cut the planning department's budget from about $76,000 to about $43,000.

But local builder Craig Farley said the cuts are too deep and will end up hurting the town. The cuts will cause a longer wait time for builders seeking permits — and that will discourage growth, he said.

Further, Farley said he was bothered that the decision to chop the building department's budget to $75,000 occurred at a Concerned Residents of Wakefield meeting — without any apparent rhyme or reason. He said it appeared that residents at the CROW meeting were auctioning the building department's wages. CROW decided to pitch an advisory warrant article that asks selectmen to spend no more than $75,000 on the building department. Now, that number is in the budget. Several people from CROW are also on the budget committee.

"There was no formula at that meeting to determine it, other than the numbers thrown in the air," said Farley. "I just think this is a big mistake."

In all, about 30 people attended the meeting. The vast majority, if not all of the speakers from the audience, opposed deep cuts to the departments' budgets.

Another builder, Chuck Robbins worried the cuts would hamper the town's ability to enforce shoreline protection laws. Property taxes on shoreline properties are a major source of revenue for the town and if shoreline property values diminish it would hurt the town badly, he said.

"You're committing financial suicide for the future of the town," Robbins said.

Realtor Pam Judge was also concerned about cuts to town services. As a realtor she uses the building department to help her clients get information on properties they are interested in buying.

Planning Board Chair Rod Cools said he was "horrified" by what he saw the CROW meeting.

But CROW proponents and budget committee members Dave Mankus, Charlie Edwards and Relf Fogg said the cuts are a reflection of the departments' decreased workload because of the economy. The Mankus said he was the one who came up with the figure of $75,000. Mankus explained that the building department grew in size and expense following a building boom in the early to mid part of the last decade. The building peak occurred around 2005, when the building department was able to generate $119,000 in revenue. Now revenues are way down and taxpayers need to subsidize the department to the tune of about $10,000.

"Now the wave has hit the beach and we're trying to bring to bring what we consider an overstaffed budget in line," said Mankus. "One of the problems with bureaucracies is they react to things five years after they happen."

Mankus argued further that the budget committee was under the assumption it had to produce a budget that would translate into a level or reduced the tax rate for next year. (Homeowners saw a tax hike of 71 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in their most recent tax bill).

Budget committee chair Howie Knight explained 50 cents of the increase is due to the fact the town did not use surplus money to offset taxes. The other 21 cents needed to be raised from taxes because other revenues are down, such as registrations and permits.

The budget committee's decision to cut the planning and building departments' budgets so deeply was 6-5. Knight said he didn't have a record of how each member voted.

Budget Committee member Denny Miller said the reductions were motivated by personal agendas.

"I've been on the budget committee for 12 years and last night was the first time that I was embarrassed to be on the committee," said Miller. "At the end of my term I'm going to resign because I resent the way the budget committee acted this year."

Another budget committee member, Judy Nason, said in 26 years on the committee, she's never seen departments get hit so disproportionately.

Resident Jim Miller, who films the meeting for the public, education and government channel 3, said he was disturbed that the budget committee would slash budgets for two departments that deal with life safety issues while the tax collector's budget was increased by about $3,000.

Budget committee members reiterated that workload was their rational for allocating the money the way they did.

Planning Board member Donna Faucette said when towns don't have adequate staffing in their building departments it can lead to shoddy construction projects not being caught. Faucette said she's seen that happen in other towns. The cuts will also interfere with the planning department's ability to get the Master Plan done. A Master Plan is needed pursue federal dollars, she said.

Then Faucette accused committee members of making the cuts for political reasons.

"A few people on this committee have an axe to grind against the planning board and the building department," said Faucette who later described Edwards among others as having a personal "vendetta" against the planning and building departments.

Both Edwards and Fogg denied the accusation. Edwards said he merely against onerous zoning rules and would like to advocate for personal responsibility when it comes to land use.

But budget committee member Janet Gagnon said Edwards isn't bringing his concerns to the right venue — as the town's building department enforces state codes. Even if the building department's budget is slashed, it's still responsible for enforcing state law.

Selectmen's chairman Mark Duffy muttered that Edwards ought to take his frustrations to Concord.

Over all, the total spending for the town (operating budget and warrant articles) stands at about $4.3 million, which represents a reduction of about 4.3 percent or $174,403. If revenues and assessed values stay the same taxpayers can look forward to an 18 cent reduction in next year's town taxes, said Knight.

Mankus said even more residents would be at the meeting to complain if the budget committee hadn't made the reductions in the budget.

"No one is saying good job for cutting taxes," said Mankus.

Knight said voters have the opportunity to change the town budget at deliberative session on Saturday, Jan. 30.

In other budget committee news:

The budget committee voted to unanimously to recommend a newly inked contract between the school district and the teachers union. The committee also voted unanimously to recommend another new contract between the paraprofessionals union and the school district. These contracts will be presented to voters as warrant articles in March.

These will be discussed at length tonight (Jan. 14) at the school district budget hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Opera House.

The teacher's contract would cost the following if approved: 2010 to 2011, $62,826; 2011 to 2012, $89,184; and 2012 to 2013, $84,735. The contract provides money for a performance stipend.

The paraprofessional contract would cost the following: 2010-2011, $18,082 and 2011 to2012, $13,325. The contract would allow paraprofessionals to buy into the district's health insurance plan at 100 percent cost to them.

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