This year, Advisory members and Selectmen dove into the Town’s budget process earlier than usual. As framed by Town Administrator Mark Purple, we’re now learning how “ugly” the budget process is when you “pull back the curtains”.
One item that was highlighted in Tuesday night’s budget discussion is the potential for increased fees for Transfer Station users.
Town officials’ earlier involvement this year appears to be in reaction to conflicts over the budget between Advisory and Selectmen before last year’s Annual Town Meeting. An attempt to find consensus, led to tense negotiations and compromises after the Warrant was printed.
This year, Treasurer Brian Ballantine made a presentation to Selectmen in December. Advisory and Selectmen directed him to shave the budget, keeping the increase to 3.5%. Tuesday night, he reported that 3.5% is possible, but recommended a 3.9% version.
Ballantine presented that the lower budget would reduce the road maintenance budget by $115K (almost 28%) and require two furlough days for “non-represented” employees.
Selectmen didn’t vote, but indicated they were more supportive of the 3.9% version.
Those numbers are misleading if looked at alone. Later in the meeting, Advisory Chair Adrian Peters predicted that after changes and certain Town Meeting votes, the real increase could be 4.5% to 4.7%. He followed that at the end of the day the tax increase would be there no matter how officials present it.
Peters was partly referring to separate funding articles that aren’t covered by the budget. That includes $238K for Recreation*, $30K requested for the Senior Center, and Golf Course expenses not covered by a Community Preservation Article. (Look for more on those costs/articles in future posts.)
He was also including something he expects to work its way back into the budget, since it is politically sensitive. Both versions of the squeezed budget strip out expenses for the Transfer Station.
Purple told the board that unless they want to increase the budget, putting that back in would require cutting staff positions. Referring to selectmen’s support of hiring another police officer, the Town Admin said he wouldn’t be comfortable doing that while cutting other staff.
But, if selectmen don’t reverse that budget decision, Transfer Station funding costs would be fully borne by users. Increasing permit fees was a move that made some selectmen wary.
Ballantine couldn’t specify how customers would be impacted. But Peters pointed out that the difference between collected permit fees and what was taken out of the budget forecasts the increase. Based on Ballantine’s response, it looks like in the fees would be need to increase by over 30% in total.**
Ballantine said fee options included eliminating the early bird discounts, charging Seniors a small fee, and adding to regular fees. Kolenda indicated he would rather charge more to commercial vehicle owners than seniors.
The Chair said he would like to see Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan present what she thinks is reasonable. For comparison, he would also like to hear what residents would pay if they contracted with a pickup service.
Selectman Brian Shifrin supported the change, pitching the station should be paid for by those who use it. In contrast, Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf asked to also find out what it would cost to have the station fully funded by taxes.
I knew that funding of the Transfer Station has been controversial for years. But I didn’t realize how far back the debate went until I stumbled across this post from Susan recapping an article from the 90s on a controversial fee hike. You can read that here.
The presented Budget is still in process with a few unresolved details (like a final budget from the Regional School Committee). Ballantine will be meeting with Advisory before coming back to selectmen. But Peters said Advisory will want to hear from Selectmen soon on their positions on the budget, Transfer Station, and separate funding articles.
*Recreation’s article will ask for more, but be bonded over 5 years. The $238K is the estimate for year one.
**Ballantine said that a little over $300k was collected this year. And his presentation indicated the costs pulled out of the budget are $110-140K.
Updated (2/9/18 9:03 am): Fixed a typo referring to Ballantine’s presentation as “Last night”.