A community member and former Town Councilor has submitted a petition to the Town Council asking for department heads to come to a public session to discuss the budgetary impacts of a proposed $2 per $1,000 cut to the town tax rate.
The petition, crafted by resident Neil Wetherbee, reads: “To The Derry Town Council. Being a registered voter in the Town of Derry and in the interest of transparency regarding proposed significant budget cuts affecting many Town departments, we, the undersigned, call on the Derry Town Council to publicly discuss and debate all budgetary impacts with each individually affected department head in advance of a public hearing and Town Council vote on the FY2016 budget.”
Wetherbee wrote in an accompanying letter to the Council, Town Administrator Galen Stearns and Assistant Town Administration Larry Budreau: “On Monday, March 16, I delivered a petition addressed to the Town Council, to the Town Clerk under Article 3 of the Town Charter. It is my understanding that the signatures will be verified prior to your next meeting. As this petition relates to the FY 2016 budget process and/or schedule, I am respectfully requesting that it be placed on the agenda for the Town Council meeting of March 24.
“As the petition contains the signatures of over half the people who participated in the (March 10) Town Election and as it is a time-sensitive issue, I feel it is only right that it be addressed promptly by the Council regardless of the permissible timelines which are mentioned in the Charter which could carry beyond budget season.”
Wetherbee and the signers were reacting to statements in the March 3 meeting regarding not having department heads meet with Councilors to discuss their budgets.
In a phone interview Tuesday Wetherbee said he has almost 700 signatures on the petition.
Wetherbee said he was “shocked” after the March 3 meeting and put the petition together with other community members on a moment’s notice.
“It’s not about ‘cuts or no cuts,’” Wetherbee said. “It’s about talking about the consequences in public.”
If a majority of the residents end up supporting the cuts that’s all right, Wetherbee said, adding, “But let the public hear from the department heads. Ultimately, it’s about how it impacts the public.
“You have to have both sides of the conversation,” Wetherbee said.
Wetherbee created the petition under two different rules. One requires 100 signatures, which he met; the other requires 20 percent of the voter count in the last municipal election, which he also met with 240 signatures.
Central to the issue is a preliminary budget proposal by Stearns, which had a scenario of 39 full-time and seven part-time job cuts, including cuts to both the police and fire departments.
Stearns wrote in an e-mail Tuesday morning that he had not seen the petition. He wrote, “My direction from the Council was that they did not want to go over the budget line by line or to have presentations by the department heads. The direction that I have received from the Council was that I was to present a budget that reduced the budget by $2.50 which they then reduced to $2.”
Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Council Chair Mark Osborne confirmed that going ahead with the budget without department input had been discussed, but only casually. “We have not had the formal discussion as a Council,” he said. “But yes, the idea has been kicked around.”
According to the Town Charter, Osborne said, the Town Administrator is required to present a budget to the Council. “The Charter,” he said, “does not require the department heads to do anything.”
Osborne said what would make that possible this year is that “We’re not sitting around waiting for a budget to land on us.” The Council gave specific direction to Stearns to reduce the tax rate by $2 per $1,000, he said.
Why do they not need to talk to department heads? “We have a Town Administrator,” Osborne said. “He is charged with this. The dynamic is different now.”
Osborne said the idea of having the budget directly presented to the Council has been part of an “ongoing thought process” since the last budget cycle, and was discussed with candidates in the search for a Town Administrator.
Osborne defended the transparency of the process, saying, “We set our goals in a public fashion.”
And he said no formal decision has been made as to whether the department heads will be invited in to discuss their budgets.
Stearns has proposed other solutions to Derry’s high tax rate, including “compensation reduction” for employees, which received a negative response from the collective bargaining units; changing the way the town taxes public utilities; reducing overtime budgets; and/or retaining less than the current amount of the Unexpended Fund Balance and using the savings to reduce taxes. The Department of Revenue Administration recommends a range of 8 to 17 percent to be retained in fund balance, and Derry’s current policy is to retain 12.5 percent.
“I still think we are going to find ways to retain jobs and that the personnel cuts won’t happen,” Osborne said.