BARRE – A plan to expand the local police department ran into a roadblock Monday night when members of a recently appointed citizens’ budget committee couldn’t bring themselves to support the measure.
The committee, which is scheduled to make its recommendation to the City Council tonight, concluded that in a community where the cost of municipal services is already climbing at more than twice the rate of inflation and affordability is an issue for many residents adding staff would not be wise.
Committee member John Hannigan drove that point home during a session that spanned three hours and focused as much on how to “sell” the soon-to-be-adopted budget as it did on what should be included in its bottom line.
Though Hannigan conceded he liked the sound of a beefed up police force, he said unless grant money is secured to pay for the positions hiring two new officers is a luxury the city cannot afford.
“I’m driving a 15-year-old pickup. I’d like a brand new one. But, you know what? My budget says I ain’t getting one this year,” he said.
Hannigan’s taxpayers-eye-view was shared by many committee members – including one who said he believed deeper cuts were needed to the $10.35 million budget proposed by City Manager Steve Mackenzie.
Committee member Jeff Friot said he would like to see the tax increase needed to support the city budget limited to 3 percent – roughly 1 percent less than the tax hike reflected in Mackenzie’s no-frills baseline budget. Adding police without identifying offsetting reductions would take the budget in the wrong direction, he said.
Friot proposed “sprinkling” modest cuts across most non-personnel areas of the budget in an effort to trim the tax increase to what he viewed as a more tolerable level.
Mackenzie said he would go through that exercise, but openly questioned whether it would yield enough money to hit what he described as an incredibly elusive target.
“My goal has always been to bring a budget in at (a) 3 percent (increase) or less,” he said. “(But,) it’s just a daunting if not impossible challenge.”
Mackenzie reminded the committee the budget has a built in $30,000 deficit, assumes health insurance costs will climb by 20 percent, reflects no increase in fuel costs and level funds the salt for the street department. He said it also reflects roughly $150,000 in reductions that can be traced to his decision to shift some expenses including an ambulance lease and money for two new police cruisers out of the operating budget and into a capital budget.
According to Mackenzie, the capital budget will be funded this year with a portion of the money that has been used in recent years to pay for a street reconstruction program. That program, he said, has been very successful and has consistently enjoyed voter support. However, in order to find seed money for a more robust capital budget, he said, the city is planning a “one-time hiatus” from street work.
Committee members never seriously considered a proposal to pull either of two school-based officers off their current assignments and put them on the street, though two members did briefly entertain the possibility of trying to find a way to fund one additional police officer.
However, that idea was based on the committee’s shared desire to limit the spending increase reflected in the budget and Mackenzie’s concern that making wholesale cuts to existing programs to fund new positions would not be in the city’s best interest.
Although Mackenzie told the committee he would attempt to identify additional cuts before tonight’s council meeting, the budget stood at $10.35 million – up 4.16 percent following Monday night’s meeting.
The projected tax increase – roughly 6.3 cents – was up just under 4 percent.
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