The architect of a tight town budget is recommending that the Town Council not act on the proposal, instead phasing in changes over four years.
In the March 24 Town Council meeting, Town Administrator Galen Stearns presented an overview of what a $2 per $1,000 reduction would look like to the town and its services. While the cuts would save taxpayers $500 per year on a $250,000 home, the cuts would eliminate 17 positions and close a fire station.
The $2 per $1,000 reduction would have removed the following:
• Remove public health insurance buy-out, saving $9,417;
• Reduce secretary hours in Human Services, saving $6,000;
• Savings in Assessing from director retiring, $30,000;
• Transferring hydrants to water department, saving $376,356;
• Removing one vacant and three existing positions in Fire, saving $87,850 and $243,881 respectively, and closing one fire station;
• Removing all charitable contributions from Human Services, saving $170,000;
• Funding Taylor Library through a trust or closing it, saving $178,315;
• Reducing Derry Public Library programs to save $200,000;
• Cutting the Information Technology department budget by $20,000;
• Saving $20,000 in assessing by delaying filling the director position;
• Eliminating court filings for Ambulance, which is done through Finance and would save $20,000;
• Eliminating the armored car for the Tax Collector department, saving $15,000;
• Cutting Fire overtime by $150,000 and Police overtime by $200,000;
• Eliminating the paving budget at Department of Public Works, saving $1 million;
• Police, reducing Animal Control Officer to part time, saving $47,909;
• Police, eliminating one sworn officer and one civilian position for a savings of $81,868 and $65,167 respectively;
• Town Clerk’s office, reduction in hours and days, saving $22,558;
• Planning, resigning from Southern New Hampshire Planning Commission, saving $20,966;
• Executive, reducing professional services, saving $8,300;
• Health, reducing secretary’s hours for a savings of $3,373;
• Emergency Management, cutting $5,497; and
• Heritage Commission, cutting $5,500 or half its budget.
In addition, Stearns’ scenario called for the elimination of several positions by attrition, including a vacant internal auditor position, $39,316; vacant Tax Collector clerk, $33,267; four vacant positions in Fire, $354,425; the vacant position of Fire Prevention Director, $87,850; vacant Evidence Clerk position, $35,263; vacant Patrol Officer position, $78,326; and vacant Transfer Station position, $81,868.
Stearns reviewed the process to this point, including the original request from the Council to craft a budget reducing taxes by $2.50 per $1,000 on Dec. 2, 2014; a directive to come up with a working budget reducing the tax rate by $2 per $1,000 on Dec. 16; and a request to look at fund balance and other revenues, March 3.
Stearns’ original proposal at $2.50 per $1,000 would have reduced 49 jobs; his original pass-through at $2 per $1,000, 39 jobs; and the proposal he presented March 24, 17 full-and part-time positions. Eleven of those positions would be unfilled by attrition as they are currently vacant.
Stearns’ ideas for revenue include shifting the water hydrant fees to the water users and increasing the fees for call-box monitoring.
The proposal is a 20 percent reduction of current town services and meets the $2 per $1,000 goal, Stearns said.
Stearns wrote in a memo accompanying the proposal that the reductions would be “drastic” and that an attempt to restore services after the cuts would be limited by the charter, which has a tax cap tied to the Consumer Price Index.
Stearns wrote, “I respectfully request that you revise your tax goal to allow us to do this over a four-year period.”
The time frame for adopting this budget includes a public hearing April 21 and a final hearing and adoption May 5. “We need to adopt something by the end of May or we will be in default,” Stearns said.
Stearns clarified, “This is not the budget. This is the goal.”
The Councilors heard from members of the public before discussing the goals among themselves (See related stories pages 1).
“We were elected by the people, and the people tonight have sent a strong message,” Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores said. “This was only a proposal.”
Councilor Joshua Bourdon said, “A budget like this needs careful planning. I can’t support it as it is presented.”
Bourdon said he ran as a “consensus builder, realist and advocate for positive change.”
He took a moment to decry the way the budget issue is splitting the town, noting, “There is a lot of pointing of fingers and blaming others. It’s a toxic situation, and brings out the worst in us. We have been lobbing grenades at each other while the cause of the tax rate is being ignored.”
Central to the discussion was a concept of not calling in department heads to discuss their budgets (See related story on petition page 2.) Newly-elected Chairman Tom Cardon explained the reasoning behind that.
“Last year we were all sitting here discussing a lawnmower, whether it would be cheaper to buy it at Home Depot.” He said, “This is equivalent to a $36 million company. We don’t need to micromanage it.”
Councilor David Fischer said, “Last year we discussed it and unanimously agreed that we needed a different process. We needed to start early, with a top priority of reducing property taxes.”
Fischer said a petition by community member and former Councilor Neil Wetherbee “wants us to go back to the way we did it for years, line by line, like a dog and pony show. The public forum is where the community can weigh in and voice their support.”
He asked, “Did anybody find the feedback from department heads enlightening?”
“Yes,” several members of the standing-room-only crowd yelled back, and Cardon gaveled them.
Fischer also referred to “biased attempts by special-interest groups” to influence the budget and said the professional employees of the town “would not let crime run rampant, would not let the town burn down.”
Councilor Richard Tripp, who was sworn in that evening, said, “The problem did not arise over two years and it will not be solved in one year.” He called on the Council to provide more leadership in economic development and said he would not support the cuts until he head the reasoning behind them.