Residents discuss 11% proposed budget increase

BROOKLINE – Five people, beside the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee, showed up Monday for the first of two public hearings on the town budget. Of those five people, one was the town clerk and another was a state representative.

The turnout was low, considering the topic at hand: the 2004 proposed town budget is up almost 11 percent, from $2.63 million to $2.91 million.

The largest line-item increase in the 2004 budget proposal is debt service, which includes the town’s bond payments and the interest on those bonds.

In addition to three bonds (loans made to towns, usually repaid over 10 or 20 years) that the town is already paying for, the town will begin paying for two additional bonds, approved at last year’s Town Meeting. The two new bonds and the associated interest will increase the budget by $225,612. Some of the other bond payments have decreased.

Overall, the debt service budget will see a 135 percent increase, from $161,149 in 2003 to $378,738.

State Rep. Tom Arnold, R-Brookline, made a suggestion that selectmen do some research into “calling” the bonds that the town is repaying. Because interest rates are low, he said, it might be beneficial to the town to lump the three bonds into a 20-year bond with a renegotiated interest rate. Selectmen said they would check into the legality of that possibility with the state Department of Revenue Administration.

Arnold said there might be time to draft a warrant article for this year’s Town Meeting to secure the town’s authority to “refinance” these bonds, if there’s a need for such a warrant. If the process works, then the town could see a reduction in its interest rates in 2005.

Health insurance costs for the town have risen due to an increase in premiums. Last year, the Personnel Department asked for $114,500 for insurance. This year, the department is asking for $139,325, almost a 22 percent increase.

Selectman Robert Parodi said, “This is something next year’s board has got to get a handle on.” When resident Ken Lempman asked selectmen whether he should bring up the issue at Town Meeting, selectmen answered that Lempman could do so if he chose. Parodi added, “It’s an administrative issue that the selectmen have to deal with. If I run, I intend to address it.”

Selectmen asked Fire Chief Curt Jensen to look into reducing the tax impact of two items concerning the Fire Department. One change would be to budget only the amount necessary to pay for each year’s fuel.

Currently, the budget includes the cost of one year’s fuel plus the cost of the following year. The reason behind that is the town locks in a fuel rate late in the year and prepays for the next year’s fuel. Parodi argued that once the town knows the prepay rate, there’s no need to budget more money than that each year.

The other item selectmen asked Jensen to look into was leasing rather than buying a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Fire Department has presented a warrant article asking for $30,000, which would be raised through taxes, to buy a new Chevrolet Tahoe.

The vehicle would act as a traveling command center and allow fire personnel to access locations during inclement weather.

The selectmen asked Jensen to look into a lease-purchase rather than an outright purchase in order to decrease the first-year tax impact to the town. The Public Welfare Department has an increase in their proposed 2004 budget due to an increase in need for aid, selectmen’s Chairwoman Linda Saari said. Most municipalities across the state provide for residents in financial need.