Department heads holding the line

HOLLIS – Weeks before the credit crisis put Wall Street and the federal government into a tailspin, Vahrij Manoukian, chairman of the board of selectmen, was repeating a mantra that has become familiar in the private and public sectors in recent days: no new spending, or in Manoukian’s words, “zero increase.”

Department heads, it turns out, have been listening.

So far, just two of 18 department heads who have made budget requests to the board of selectmen have asked for increases, although heads of police, fire and public works departments, traditionally the most expensive departments to run, won’t bring their requests to the table until the board’s meeting this evening.
Included in that group are communications, animal control and emergency management departments.

One of the two outliers is the cemetery trustees who say they need $2,500 to manage a grub problem in the East and North cemeteries, that left untreated is likely to destroy the grass there. The other is the Hollis Social Library, which is asking for $29,000 spread out over a three-year period to purchase library software.

Gaye Kulvet, director of the Hollis Social Library, said the library uses a school library program that is unable to accommodate growing library use.

As the economy has worsened, circulation and patronage have increased, Kulvet said.

“Last year, we asked for an increase in salaries and wages to bring the staff up to speed with other libraries in the area,” the library director said, referring to a $16,638 budget increase the selectmen approved. “This year, we tried to keep everything as flat as we could, increase salaries to cover the cost of living and the other for software.”

She said the current software was designed for use with fewer patrons and circulation.

“In business terms, you’ve got Bank of America and Workers Credit Union. Will Bank of America use the same system? It won’t be as effective and efficient because Bank of America is a much bigger entity,” Kulvet said, comparing the town library to the big bank and the school library to the local credit union.

Former Selectman Melinda Willis, who has been a cemetery trustee since last spring, said she rejected the trustees’ request for funding of grub control last year, while she was sitting on the board.

Now, she’s changed her mind.

“Last year, we were trimming every department, and it seemed like a reasonable trim from the board of selectmen point of view,” Willis said. “Once I was sitting on the trustees, I realized we really did need that money. We have such a barebones budget.”

Willis said that as a selectman she thought the trustees could have found a lower bidder for the job. As a trustee, however, she came to realize that the estimate had been “dead-on” and that the group had gone with the low bidder.

“We’re asking for additional money for grub control, no increase for landscaping,” Willis said. “We really need to fix the grub problem, or we’ll have no grass, just dirt.”

In the meantime, Manoukian, selectmen’s chairman, is holding firm to his pledge not to increase spending in any department.

“Any increase, any expenditure will be denied with a big ‘D,’ ” Manoukian said. “I am suggesting having a freeze on all raises for next year, because this is just the tip of iceberg.”

It’s not just happening in Hollis, either.

Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. John Lynch announced that the state budget could be short by $100 million by summer, and he was considering making spending cuts, possibly before the November election.

The governor said he would focus on efficiencies, doing more with less, rather than lay off employees.

Manoukian said this week that he is on the same page.

He said he will put public safety first, an issue the board will discuss this evening when the several department heads make their budget requests.

“We don’t have the revenues. We have to live within our means,” Manoukian said.