Selectmen working to trim proposed budget

HOLLIS – While people are out tackling holiday wish lists for their loved ones, the Board of Selectmen is trying to trim back its wish list for next year’s budget.

After a 2½-hour presentation to the Budget Committee Tuesday night, selectmen determined they will have to scale back next year’s proposed town budget significantly before bringing it before the voters.

“All of the requests that made it through the selectmen’s process were very good,” said Budget Committee Chairman Mike Harris. “But we have to be able to afford it.”

Officials expressed varying degrees of frustration and encouragement Wednesday.

“We’re working with the Budget Committee to cut about $1 million,” Selectmen Chairman Don Ryder said. “We’re going to be hard pressed to cut a million and maintain the level of services.”

Ryder said selectmen succeeded in keeping the tax rate down last year and actually decreased taxes. However, those decreased tax rates are now resulting in a scramble to fill the requests for funds.

“We hurt ourselves last year by doing what we did,” Ryder said.

At $6.4 million, the proposed 2004 town budget rings in at about 23 percent more than the 2003 proposed town budget of $5.2 million. This year, the owner of a $350,000 house would have paid $844 in taxes if the town spent all the money in the proposed town budget. Next year, that person would pay $1,277 – a 51 percent increase.

“I’m sure they’ll go back and sharpen their pencils,” Harris said. “The discrepancy is between what the selectmen presented and what we think is fiscally responsible.”

Town Finance Officer Paul Calabria said, “I don’t think discrepancy is the right word. We’re over their target number, but we’re portraying the needs of the town.”

Two funding requests never made it into the budget proposal because they were axed by selectmen, at least for now.

“The selectmen decided to not present the fire department renovations,” Calabria said. “That would have been $950,000. We’ll wait until the police department renovation price comes in and do a safety bond (a bond that covers dispatch, fire and police department costs). If the same contractor gets both bids, then there may be a discount.”

Selectmen also opted not to put the Lawrence Barn project in the budget proposal. For a proposed $250,000, the Heritage Commission would have taken the historical barn out of storage and reconstructed it for town recreational use on Nichols Field.

“The Lawrence Barn (proposal) has just grown too expensive for what it was intended to be,” Ryder said. “It’s just running wild.”

Heritage Commission Chairwoman Sharon Howe said, “This (project) has been in the works for about four years. We had a warrant article set to go last year. We pulled the article at the last minute because (it included) a preschool area and it was driving the price up.”

The Heritage Commission could still bring the project before voters in a separate warrant article.

Budget proposals to build a salt shed and to expand East Cemetery might make it through the trimming process.

The town’s supply of winter road salt sits in an open location where the supply could potentially contaminate private wells.

“(The Budget Committee can) see the need for a salt shed,” Calabria said. “(It’s) a liability concern.”

The town is considering buying land adjacent to East Cemetery to expand the facility.

“The seller wants to sell this land,” Ryder said. “So, if the town doesn’t buy it, it will go on the market and won’t be available to us.”

Rather than buying the land up front, the Budget Committee asked selectmen to look into bonding the purchase, which would allow the town to pay for the land over time. Paying for the parcel up front would have meant more of a hike in next year’s property taxes.

Now selectmen have to sift through proposed warrant articles and other funding needs to see which can be sacrificed for the time being. The Budget Committee will review the second draft of the 2004 budget on Jan. 13. A public hearing will be held on Feb. 5.