Budget meetings begin with tension, a van

MILFORD – The country may be in a severe recession, but that’s no reason to be penny-wise and pound-foolish, voters at the town Deliberative Session agreed Saturday as they increased the operating budget to replace a rusting 13-year-old sport utility vehicle for the fire department.

Selectmen had planned to spend $5,000 to maintain the old emergency vehicle, but the Budget Committee said that was too costly a way of putting off a needed replacement.

“I drive this SUV, and it has a severe case of rust,” firefighter William Kincaid said. “You will continually dump money into this thing.”the SUV brought the proposed town budget from $11.553 million to $11.578 million. Voters on Election Day, March 10, will decide that article and 25 more on the town ballot.

Voters spent a couple of hours debating the budget, which Selectman Jim Dannis called “reasonable,” although he spoke against employee salary increases that go up to 3 percent.

“They should be frozen and we should look at excessive benefits,” he said, especially sick-time buyouts of 15 days, “which averages $700 a year for town employees.”

Voters finally decided to let Article 4, the town budget, go on the ballot unchanged, except for the addition for the SUV. They rejected an attempt to remove $18,000 that will pay for a consultant to help plan expansion of the fire station, ambulance center and Town Hall.

Town Meeting ‘09

“It will save money in the long run,” Selectman Kathy Bauer said. “Taking out the $18,000 will bring the process to a screeching halt.”

The original budget number would have resulted in a tax rate impact of $4.07, and the added $25,000 for the SUV would presumably mean a slight increase.

Dannis also spoke against Article 8, a five-year collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters Union, which includes 24 town employees. It would cost taxpayers $14,016 this year.

Dannis called the contract – including a sick-day buyout provision he called “basically a cash-bonus program” and no health insurance contributions on the part of employees – irresponsible.

“In no way am I voting against town employees,” said Dannis, “but it’s not fair to taxpayers who may be losing their jobs that this contract locks in increases for five years.”

No one made a motion to amend it, however, and Article 8 went on the ballot unchanged.

Dannis also said the town’s fund balance – essentially, surplus money – should go back to taxpayers and that selectmen should cut their $2,500 yearly stipend to nothing.

Town Administrator Guy Scaife defended the budget and explained the difficulty in keeping the increase to 0.4 percent in the face of lost revenue and declining interest on investments.

“Even if the budget stays flat, without the use of the fund balance, taxes would be higher,” he said.

He said, however, that the sick-time buyout “clearly needs review.”

Residents also increased the budget for social services from $25,000 to $35,000, despite Dannis’ contention that he had heard “no statement of fact as to the tangible benefit to the town,” and said “people of means” should be contributing, not taxpayers.

During the more than six-hour Deliberative Session, the 83 voters also reduced money for the Pumpkin Festival and holiday decorations and plantings from $20,000 to $15,000.

Other articles that will be on the town warrant include:

$295,000 worth of improvements to the Curtis Well water supply facility.

$155,000 for matching funds to a federal grant for improvements to Route 101A, Route 13 and the Oval.

$12,500 to reinstate four hours a week at Wadleigh Memorial Library.

$10,000 for Fourth of July fireworks, $9,000 for summer band concerts and $6,000 for parades for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Labor Day.