BARRE — Mayor Thomas Lauzon and City Manager Steve Mackenzie this week gently butted heads over an $11.2 million municipal budget proposal that, in the mayor’s view, isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Lauzon praised Mackenzie and members of a citizens budget committee for the work they’ve done but openly worried that the tax impact of the proposed budget — a 3.73 percent increase — is more than twice the rate of inflation and the increase that residents on Social Security will see in their checks.
“The manager has done a good job. He’s done a fantastic job, but it’s just not fantastic enough,” said Lauzon, who renewed his request for surgical cuts to the budget.
With a week to go before the council is scheduled to finalize the warning for the city’s annual elections in March — a warning that must include the final budget figure — Lauzon said he wasn’t suggesting Mackenzie hack and slash the spending request that has been the subject of unprecedented scrutiny over the past three months.
“I’m not going to propose another $80,000 in cuts, but I am going to ask (Mackenzie) to find $40,000,” Lauzon told councilors moments after the manager said he struggled to trim $30,000 from the budget’s bottom line after the mayor proposed an $85,000 reduction earlier this month.
According to Mackenzie, hitting Lauzon’s initial target would be “difficult if not impossible” without hurting one or more of the services that the city provides.
“I personally feel that this is a responsible proposal and, to be honest, to start cutting anything else out of it is not realistic,” Mackenzie said before Lauzon weighed in.
After listening to Lauzon, Mackenzie’s position with respect to the budget hadn’t changed.
“I’ve got the sponge wrung pretty dry here,” he said, urging councilors to forward recommended reductions in the draft budget, which has already been revised eight times.
Mackenzie said that paper exercise sounded easier than it actually is.
“Every line in there that you folks can come to me and say: ‘You can take out $5,000,’ I can point to another line that’s probably $10,000 light,” he warned, pointing to the current year’s budget as a prime example.
Midway through the fiscal year, Mackenzie said expenditures are up and revenues are off, and he has temporarily frozen all discretionary spending without his prior approval. Barring a dramatic shift in the current trend, he pegged the chances of the city ending the year with another tidy surplus at “slim to nonexistent.”
According to Lauzon, that’s all the more reason to rein in spending, because the tax impact of the budget proposal that is currently being debated has been blunted by plans to use $168,000 of a $288,000 surplus as a source of revenue.
In a city where every $48,000 in municipal spending adds a penny to the tax rate, use of the surplus will trim 3.5 cents from the projected rate hike, leaving the increase at just under 6.2 cents.
Roughly 2.6 cents of that increase can be traced to the council’s decisions to approve several tax stabilization agreements — including those for City Place and the Blanchard Block. Lauzon defended those agreements while suggesting the balance of the increase was slightly higher than it should be to support the day-to-day operation of the city.
“It’s important to show just a little more discipline,” he said, repeatedly expressing concern that the proposed increase for operations exceeded the rate of inflation and cost-of-living adjustments afforded to those on fixed incomes and could not be sustained over time.
“We’re eroding their buying power,” he said of taxpayers who live on fixed incomes.
Although councilors weren’t averse to Mackenzie taking one last look at the budget, they weren’t insistent that he make cuts. The spending proposal, by charter, is technically his.
“It’s the manager’s budget,” Councilor Paul Poirier told Mackenzie. “I’m going to support what you bring (to us). You run the city day to day.”
Although Poirier is technically right, Mackenzie said the council’s endorsement is crucial both practically and politically.
“I respect that it’s the manager’s budget, but if the manager doesn’t have the support of the council it’s the kiss of death,” he said. “The public has to have the sense of comfort level that the council … has scrutinized the budget … and said: ‘This is the best we can do.’”
Lauzon said he wasn’t quite there yet but hoped to be by next week. He said modest reductions, including the elimination of a $7,500 contingency, would give him the comfort level to unabashedly back the budget in the run-up to Town Meeting Day.
“Then I will sit there and say to voters: ‘If you fail this budget I will be an advocate of coming right back with the same one,’” he said.
david.delcore @timesargus.comMORE IN This Just In
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