January 04, 2012BRISTOL— Bristol budget deliberations this week entered a critical phase as the 12-member budget committee began voting on bottom line numbers for each department for the budget that will come before the voters at the 2012 Town Meeting.
There is still a long way to go in the process leading up to the annual Town Budget hearing, where Bristol voters will have an opportunity to weigh in on the details before the Budget Committee takes its final vote on the numbers that will be presented for consideration at Town Meeting.
The Select Board has already submitted its recommendations for budget committee consideration after a line by line review that pared the FY2012 budget down by more than $300,000 from initial department requests.
Budget Committee member Dave Carr has also sharpened his pencil and provided line by line recommendations for additional cuts that budget committee members can consider in their deliberations, often suggesting refinements as precise as $10 - $100 on individual categories in a proposed budget totaling close to $5 million.
The proceedings started on a somber note as committee members considered correspondence from Bristol residents and taxpayers who say they are struggling to pay their taxes during difficult economic times, and who expressed their concerns that taxes continue to increase even as property values have been on the decline in recent years. In recent weeks, a group of concerned taxpayers, including seasonal property owners who do not often take part in Town Meeting, have organized the Newfound Area Taxpayers Association to articulate their perspective and advocate for cuts in spending.
Budget Committee Vice-Chairman Paul Simard has adopted a tough approach, maintaining that the budget committee should seek to cut as much as $1 million from the bottom line this year. He has taken a hard line on the Fire and Rescue services in particular, suggesting that the town should return to a fully volunteer fire department and outsource ambulance services to an independent, private company, a position that has not gained traction either at the Select Board level, or with most other members of the Budget Committee.
Select Board representative to the Budget Committee Jeff Shackett took exception to the notion that the Select Board has been the driver of increases in the budget over the last few years, pointing out that it is a budget committee figure that is presented to voters at Town Meeting, and each year, the people approve the final budget numbers at Town Meeting. He said the Select Board is committed to providing whatever level of service the voters choose to fund at Town Meeting.
Budget Committee member Jon Thouin commented that the "elephant in the budget" over the past few years has been the school portion of the tax rate, while the Town has largely "kept its budget in check." Across town, at Newfound Regional High School on Tuesday night, the Newfound School District Budget Committee was deliberating on ways to attempt to reach its express goal of achieving a $4 million cut to the school budget this year.
Meanwhile, the Bristol Budget Committee made it through consideration of about a third of the total budget, and will continue its deliberations next week. Thus far, the budget committee has voted to deny Town employees a proposed two percent pay raise in next year's budget. The "level funding" of salaries and pay rates applies across the board in all departments except contract employees, and in cases where jobs have been reclassified and duties have been changed for the upcoming year.
Budget Committee member Dorcas Gordon said it was difficult to justify a two percent raise for Town employees in a year when state employees and those in private industry were not getting raises, and she said she would prefer level funding salaries to cutting benefits such as life and disability insurance, upon which many employees reasonably depend for long-term financial stability.
Level funding employee salaries is expected to save an estimated $40,000 next year.
The Budget Committee also approved bottom line cuts in the proposed Police and Fire Department budgets, although they did not specify where the cuts might be made. Committee members seemed to be united in the view that the Department Heads have the professional expertise to decide how the numbers should best be reworked in order to arrive at the maximum efficiency with minimum disruption to operations.
The budget committee voted down a proposal to eliminate the equivalent of two full-time positions from the police roster in order to achieve a savings of an estimated $90.000. Several members said they were "not comfortable" with the idea that state police can be relied upon to adequately cover Bristol's police functions during certain shifts in the absence of the regular duty police officers.
Ultimately, the committee approved a motion to reduce the Police Department's bottom line budget figure to $900,000 from the Select Board's recommended budget of $936,029.
Next week, the budget committee will take up consideration of the Police Department's $200,000 request for Outside Details, to provide public safety during traffic and infrastructure construction projects in the coming year. These details are paid for by revenues from outside contractors, but several committee members said that they were concerned that requiring the police details inflates bid prices for work the Town pays for, and that details should be eliminated if they are not entirely necessarily. Simard has proposed the line item be cut by $100,000.
After debating the wisdom of Simard's proposals to return Bristol to a volunteer fire department, the budget committee ultimately voted to reduce the total Fire Department budget from the Select Board's recommended $892,977 to $850,000, leaving the specifics to the Fire Chief to determine where the cuts should come.
"I think this fulfills our responsibility to respond to taxpayers' concerns for cutting the budget, while still giving latitude to the Chief to cut where he sees fit," said budget committee member Dan Arsenau, who proposed the measure.
For the most part, Simard's fellow budget committee members rejected the notion that Bristol could return to a volunteer force, although several members expressed openness to considering some cuts in personnel from current levels.
"The consequences of returning to a volunteer force would be monumental," commented committee member Barbara Greenwood. "It would turn the clock back 50 years."
She said that in days gone by, employers were more willing to release staff for volunteer firefighting responsibilities. In addition, over the course of time, codes have changed, training requirements have increased, and the public safety services have been professionalized to improve safety standards.
"God save us from professionals," Simard remarked.
But Shackett commented that the people of Bristol have come to rely upon the public service that Bristol provides, and have supported force levels with their votes at Town Meeting in previous years. "We have come to depend on the idea that when you call for help, someone will show up," said Shackett.
Bristol currently operates a 24 hour fire and rescue service, with seven full-time department members and brings in revenues from surrounding communities that are covered by the full-time professional ambulance service.