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Police, school look for direction from city

April 28, 2010
BERLIN — The struggle to keep the city budget flat continued this week, with both the police department and the school department trying to understand just where the council would like them to go.

Police Chief Peter Morency sent the council a letter on behalf of the police commission asking for clarification on what money they can use to reach the goal of cutting almost $150,000 from their budget.

"At the police department's budget presentation last month Mayor Grenier and the city council issued a challenge to the entire department to do whatever it could to reduce its budget request as much as possible," the letter opened. "Since then the department and the employees have been intently seeking ways to meet that challenge, but we have hit several obstacles."

"It's not to insult anybody or aggravate anybody," Chief Morency said. "it's just looking for direction."

The direction the police department needs, he said, is whether the department will be able to use any budget surplus from the current year to address next years needs, and the same with some capital improvement requests.

The department is looking for the council to confirm that money can be applied toward the $150,000 reduction.

And, the letter said, the department also needs to know if the flat budget goal will continue into the future.

"If the department is successful in offsetting the increase to the fiscal year 2011 budget, will the fiscal year 2012 budget be compared to the department's original fiscal year 2011 budget request, or will it be compared to a flat-lined, reduced budget at fiscal year 2010 appropriations?" the letter said.

In short, will the council take into consideration the cuts to the budget the department made this year result in future years?

The problem, said Chief Morency, is costs go up every year, instead of stay flat. Keeping the budget flat means the department has to provide fewer services, he said, and doing it over and over again will only hurt the city.

"Let's face it, this is the third year we've been flat-lined," he said.

The school department has had similar questions for the council. When board chair Mitch Couture met with the council two weeks ago to tell them the department laid of 10 teachers he asked for a commitment from the council that the school department could keep any surplus from this year to apply to next year's budget. The council did not make any promises.

The issue from both the school department and the police department is largely salary and benefits increases with unions. The salaries and benefits increase every year, and with a flat budget the departments are having trouble meeting those obligations.

"We've got to look at everything," Chief Morency said, "but the bottom line is 90 percent of our operating budget is personnel."

The department is in discussions with the union, he said, to try to negotiate some sort of compromise to reduce the $150,000 budget increase.

But negotiations with the union representing teachers did not produce the desired effect.

The Berlin Education Association offered to cut their salary increase for next year from 3 percent, as their contract stipulates, to 1.5 percent, as well as increase their health insurance copays. They also outlined 2.5 percent and 2 percent increases for fiscal year 2012 and 2013, and asked to lock in some health insurance benefits until their contract is renegotiated.

The city declined their offer.

"As you would expect, the Mayor and Council greatly appreciate the offer to reduce next year's pay increase from 3 percent to 1.5 percent," the city said in a letter to the BEA, "and also to increase the office co-pays and drug co-pays to higher levels. These would result in real savings and the Mayor and Council would happily accept those by themselves. However, because the financial future of the City is so unclear at this point, the Mayor and Council do not feel in a position to commit to any extensions to existing contracts."

The BEA contract expires June 30, 2011.

The letter goes on to say the city recognizes the BEA is not obligated to renegotiate their contract, and the council appreciates their willingness to do so. It also said the city hopes the union will come back with another proposal to save money.

But the BEA's experience concerns Chief Morency. He said he worries what will happen if the council rejects a propose the department negotiates with personnel and they have to go back a second or third time.

"At some point they're going to say enough is enough," he said. "I'm trying to avoid that."

He understands the predicament the city is in, he said, but bad economic times are not a good time to reduce services. On the other hand, he said, he recognizes the tough job the council has before them, balancing keeping property taxes down and still providing adequate services. His goal, he said, is to reach understand fully what tools he can use to achieve the council's goal.

"Life needs to continue," he said. "We need to plan for the best for the community."

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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