One of Derry’s newest Town Councilors has questioned the process by which the Council reviews budget requests.
Councilor David Fischer, representative for District 3, asked for a budget process discussion to be added to the agenda for April 15.
Fischer introduced his concerns by saying, “First, Mr. Budreau (acting Town Administrator Larry Budreau) gave us an overview and slide presentation of the working budget. I can’t find a copy of his presentation anywhere. The Council should have copies, and it should be on the Web site for the public.”
Fischer also questioned the current process, which involves additional Council meetings where Councilors and department heads go over each budget line by line. He pressed for earlier discussions on “whether we’re satisfied with the budget as a group.”
“I continue to hear concerns from the public about high taxes,” Fischer said.
Expenditures are the only thing the Council has control over, Fischer pointed out.
He pressed for more conceptual discussions before the actual budget came out. “We should be discussing things like, what would a 1 percent reduction be? What would be the impact on the tax rate?” he said, adding that he didn’t know of an organization or a town that “didn’t look at its own effectiveness.”
He said, for example, he likes the idea of an expanded Veterans Tax Credit, but wanted to know more about the tax impact.
“We need to discuss, ‘What is our goal?’” Fischer said. “What would a 1 percent reduction look like? A 2 percent reduction? A 3 percent reduction?
“Our responsibility is to decide what we want,” he said. “The Acting Town Administrator’s responsibility is to figure out how to do it.”
But Budreau maintained he had done the best he could with the direction he received. The working budget is level-funded, he said. “Lacking input on a goal, the staff assumed you would want to continue the services you have today,” he said. “And we assumed you would not want your taxes increased.”
Fischer responded, “It is clearly our responsibility to make sure we deliver services. But we need to look at ways we can deliver comparable services at a reduced cost.”
Budreau said both he and Chief Financial Officer Frank Childs came to Derry from the private sector, and they craft budgets with a “private-sector, profit-oriented mind set.” In recent years Derry has reduced 18 full-time positions. The Consumer Price Index has increased by 20 percent, “and we are maintaining our spending at half of that,” he told the Council.
But it comes at a cost, Budreau added. “Behind closed doors, the staff is at its wit’s end,” he said. “We have exhausted our capability to provide services. We are a lean machine. We are getting by, but if we budget any less, things are going to have to give.”
“I don’t want to jeopardize the health and safety of anyone in the community,” Fischer said. “I want to know how we can reduce the tax rate, what is a fair amount. Without a goal, it seems like each week we are going through the motions.”
Tom Cardon, who recently concluded his first year as a Councilor, observed, “I almost didn’t run because I knew what budget season meant.” It coincides with the busiest time of the year for him as teacher in a high school Culinary Arts program, he said. “I’m running here and there, doing catering I’m out four nights a week,” he noted.
Cardon emphasized with Fischer and said, “It’s a lousy setup. But I don’t see it changing.”
It is what it is, Councilor Al Dimmock said. The Council does cut the working budget and there is no other way to do it than line-by-line, he said. “We can ask, ‘Is this really necessary?’ But it’s the only time we can ask these questions,” he said.
Veteran Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said, “It is a difficult time for a new Councilor. A handful of weeks later, you have to jump into the budget.” She pressed for line-by-line, noting, “We have a chance to ask questions.”
Council Chairman Mark Osborne agreed with Fischer that the Council should have clearer goals and communicate them to Budreau and Childs. “But we still have to go through it line-by-line,” he said. “We need to strike a balance between delegating responsibility and our role as stewards of the public purse.”
Fischer told the Council, “I suggest we look at any process we have with a mind-set toward improvement.”