The Derry Town Council will return to a line-by-line analysis of its working budget for 2017, and will adopt an aggressive schedule to finish its work by the May deadline.
At the April 5 Town Council meeting, Councilors discussed the schedule for the budget and also held a philosophical forum on how they want to see it approached. While two Councilors, David Fischer and Richard Tripp, favored delegating the details to Acting Town Administrator Stephen Daly, the other five said they think digging more deeply better served their constituents.
Chairman Brian Chirichiello said the budget talks would require an “aggressive” schedule with the department heads. “It doesn’t have to be cast in stone, but we do need to hit the ground running,” he told the Council and television audience.
The first meeting, scheduled for Thursday, April 7, was planned to review the budget proposals of the Town Clerk, the two libraries, Public Works, and the enterprise funds of Cable Television, Water and Wastewater (See related story this page).
Chirichiello suggested Saturday, April 9, for the review of the Police and Fire Department proposals, but Councilor David Fischer said he had a conflict.
The ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it
In the Council budget discussion, Fischer reminded Councilors that the initial goal of a 1-cent reduction on the tax rate did not “come out of thin air.” It was discussed by the previous Council.
Fischer reiterated that previous Council’s goal of reducing the tax rate. “We tried to do too much too soon,” he said, observing that several of that Council’s decisions were overturned in the Oct. 13 Special Election.
But Fischer maintained that the interest in cutting the tax rate remains strong.
Fischer referenced the community survey done last fall and completed in December. “There was a budget question,” he said. “Six hundred people took the survey, and of that, 490 asked us to continue a gradual reduction of the tax rate.”
Fischer added, “It can’t be any more gradual than 1 cent per $1,000.”
The goal of reducing the tax rate did not come from the Council but from the survey respondents and community, Fischer maintained.
Fischer described two scenarios. One is the 1-cent reduction that was the Council’s directive to Daly. The other is a 6-cent raise in taxes, which is as high as they can go under the tax cap, he said.
Fischer further said that there are two “arenas” in the budget process. One is the “What,” the Council’s responsibility to deliver a budget to the community. The other is the “How,” and that should be the responsibility of the staff, he said. “They look at their needs every day. For us to determine the ‘how’ is inappropriate,” Fischer said.
Fischer said, “We need to understand what our role is. The administrator should work with the department heads to determine the ‘how.’”
Fischer expressed concern about different proposals the Council would be seeing. One is the 1-cent reduction directed to Daly. But with department heads in the mix, “You are going to see a separate group of different proposals but other people,” he said.
“We have an administrator who takes the lead from the governing board,” Fischer said. “Should we be getting into the budget? I question everyone’s ability to do that.”
Fischer said at the March 15 Council meeting, he received the impression that budget discussions would be part of every regular meeting. He didn’t expect to have extra meetings scheduled, he said, adding, “Now you’re talking about department heads giving presentations?”
He also questioned the possibility of department heads saying the equivalent of, “I’ll get back to you on that,” noting, “If you can’t give me an answer in our first meeting, why are we doing this at all?”
Councilor Charles Foote disagreed. “You mentioned the survey,” he said to Fischer. “In the election in October, 6,000 people voted and most of them wanted to reinstate the cuts. That’s a better majority than the survey had. People came out and voted for what they thought was important.”
That, he said, “is why we need to fine-tooth-comb the budget.”
Jim Morgan, like Foote a freshman Councilor, said, “That’s why we can’t do a $45 million budget overnight.” He reviewed Daly’s working budget over the weekend, he said, noting, “It took me four hours, and I came out with 45 questions.”
When he was running for office, he met with department heads and the previous Council and he asked, “How do we lower taxes and retain services?”
“I got different answers from everyone I asked,” Morgan said. “Our job is to understand the budget we sign off on.”
That doesn’t mean that he is going to quibble about toilet paper and paper clips, he added.
“But we owe it to the citizens of this town to come up with a budget that makes sense,” Morgan said.
Dotting the I’s,
crossing the T’s
Morgan said he was in favor of going line-by-line through the budget. “There are too many moving parts not to,” he said. “We owe it to the residents of the town to give them the services they want, at a rate they want to pay.”
Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores worked under the previous system and said, “It’s a chance for us to understand, to ask questions, and for the public to hear the answers.”
Chirichiello said closer budget scrutiny was part of his campaign platform. “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “The people at home see the process. The department heads tell us what they need.”
“Yes, it’s intense,” Chirichiello added. “But people elect us to do the hard work.”
Fischer disagreed. “Our job is oversight and responsibility,” he said. “If we ask questions about line-by-line, we are going to need six months.”
Councilor Richard Tripp agreed with Fischer. “The department heads submitted their budgets to the Town Administrator, and the Administrator sat down with them and learned the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’” he said. “This budget has already had a fairly good scrub-down.”
Tripp predicted that if the Council went line-by-line, they wouldn’t make “even a miniscule change.”
Councilor Joshua Bourdon said, “Dave’s points are logical. But we represent the residents of this community.” Bourdon said he trusted the staff, but noted the Council served as a “check and balance” to staff wants and needs.
“The department heads will educate us,” he said.
Morgan also expressed concern about the proposal to appropriate $600,000 from the Unexpended Fund Balance (UFB). “If there’s a chance we can sit for four days and come up with $200,000 that we won’t have to take from the Fund Balance, I’ll do it,” he said.
But Tripp countered, “We tend to underestimate our revenues and over-estimate our expenses. There is plenty of money in the UFB, and I do not see a problem in using some of it to keep the tax rate down.”
In a straw poll conducted by Chirichiello, Bourdon, Foote, Katsakiores, Morgan and Chirichiello voted to observe the line-by-line format, with Tripp and Fischer voting against it.
The group scrapped a proposal to meet on Saturday, April 9, and rejected April 16 as well because it is the same day as the Go Green town clean-up (See related story page 2). They instead agreed to meet Tuesday, April 12, to discuss Police and Fire budgets and Thursday, April 14, to review Finance and Executive requests.