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Joyce Endee
January 18, 2012
ASHLAND—On Friday evening, Jan. 13, the Ashland Town Budget Committee held its public hearing on the 2012 Town Budget and proposed money warrant articles. The meeting had been rescheduled from the night before due to a snowstorm.

The Budget Committee will meet this evening, Thursday, Jan. 19, to finalize the budget number following public input from the hearing.

Voters will gather at the Ashland Elementary School Gym for the Deliberative Session of the Annual Town Meeting on Saturday, Feb. 4 at 10 a.m. to consider 26 Articles on the warrant, including the Proposed General Operating Budget of $2,683,460.

The warrant, as amended at the Deliberative Session, will go to the voters at the polls in March. Should the voters fail to approve the Operating Budget, as amended, the Default Budget of $2,702,688 will be enacted.

The proposed Ashland Electric Department Budget for FY2012 is $3,106,095, with a default of $3,490,048. The Water Department Budget figure is $153,482, with a default of $225,666, and the Sewer Department Budget is $268,708, with a default of $352,282. Electric, Water and Sewer Departments are funded by user fees, and the budgets do not impact the local tax rate.

In his introductory remarks, Budget Committee Co-chair Steve Felton set the stage for the detailed discussion to follow by explaining that the Town portion of the local tax rate accounts for some 37 percent of the total tax rate. Local schools account for 45 percent of the total, the State accounts for 11 percent, and seven percent goes for County government.

He also made note that Ashland's long term debt as a percent of total expenditures is 77 percent, as compared to the state average of 12 percent, a circumstance which he said means that the Town must work to build up capital reserves and practice sound fiscal management for the future.

In summary, Felton said that a projected increase from FY 2011 Operating Budget of $2,625,522 was due to $26,600 increase in fuel costs, unavoidable projected legal expenses of a projected $20,000 for the upcoming year, carryover of warrant articles enacted at last year's meeting for about $20,000 and and estimate rate of inflation of two percent, accounting for some additional $52,510.

"The proposed 2012 budget is $64,498 less than last year, if you take out these items of increase," said Felton.

Budget Committee Co-chair David Ruell led a department by department review of the budget, stopping to entertain comments and answer questions from the relatively small group of citizens who turned out for the hearing.

Among other things, at issue in the budget is a proposed 1.5 percent wage increase for non-union employees, which had been approved by the Select Board, but was not supported by the Budget Committee. Details about final union contract negotiations were not available at the time of the hearing, but will be included in the warrant for the voters' approval at Town Meeting, as well. Select Board member Jeannette Stewart indicated that there would be a 3.2 percent increase for union employees in the final contract.

On behalf of his non-union part-time officer, Police Chief Tony Randall expressed concern about a decision to deny employees a raise this year. He said that these employees had been asked to contribute more money out of pocket for their medical expenses, and would now have less money to take home in their household budget. He said he felt that increases of one kind or another had been included in the budget for other Town employees, and that the decision to deny the 1.5 percent increase for non-union employees disproportionately impacted the police department.

The non-union raise will be one of the issues revisited by the budget committee before finalizing the budget numbers.

A number of other monied warrant articles were discussed. There is an article asking voters to raise and appropriate $10,000 for the purpose of continuing the Town of Ashland Master Planning process that is currently underway.

There is a proposed five year lease agreement to replace the 20 year old Public Works Department four wheel drive loader at a cost of $28,420 per year, for a total purchase price of $142,100, and a proposed four year lease agreement to replace the 28 year old tractor for the Transfer station at a total cost of $55,200.

The Town is waiting on final estimates for an article to fund replacement of the Fire Department roof, which is in very bad shape. Upon examination of existing conditions, an initial estimate of $27,000 for this purpose appears to be insufficient, and the warrant article amount is likely to increase to more than $40,000 before the warrant article is finalized for the Deliberative session in February.

The Budget Committee is recommending the establishment of Capital Reserve Funds; $125,000 for the repair of Town Roads and $8,000 for a Fire Department Equipment Fund. In addition, there is a petitioned warrant article asking voters to establish a Capital Improvements Committee (CIP) for the Town of Ashland.

This year, voters will have the opportunity to vote directly on petitioned warrant articles for appropriations for each of several outside organizations asking for support, including Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth (CADY), $1,000; Pemi-Baker Community Health, $9,342; Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, $6,000; Genesis Behavioral Health, $2,239; Plymouth Regional Clinic, $1,200; Tri County Cap (fuel assistance) $3,107; and The Bridge House (homeless shelter) $5,000. Each of these agencies has submitted documentation of the level of services they provide to Ashland residents.

Voters will also have the opportunity, by petitioned warrant article to restore the position of Parks and Recreation Director to full-time (40 hours a week). It has been cut to part-time in the regular portion of the operating budget for 2012.

A public hearing regarding a petitioned warrant article to increase the Board of Selectmen from three to five members is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. in the Booster Club located at 99 Main St.

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