BARRE — The focus of municipal budget discussions shifted over the weekend from dollars, more than 10.36 million of them, to cents — nearly 7 on the tax rate to start and close to 11 if city officials are serious about a plan to hire two new police officers.
Though funding for the two new officers isn’t yet reflected in the bottom line of the draft budget city councilors reviewed Saturday, City Manager Steve Mackenzie told them that adding the police positions to his “bare bones” budget proposal would push the projected tax increase from roughly 6.8 cents per $100 assessed property value to 10.6 cents.
Neither of those estimates includes the projected 4.9-cent tax rate hike that would accompany approval of the budgets proposed for Barre City Elementary and Middle School and Spaulding High School.
Based on the numbers now being discussed, the combined rate that would be used to calculate tax bills for the coming fiscal year would increase anywhere from 11.7 cents (up about 4.2 percent) to 15.5 cents (a 5.6 percent increase).
For the owner of a home assessed at $200,000, an 11.7-cent rate hike would translate into a $233 increase in the annual tax bill, while the 15.5-cent increase would require that same homeowner to pay an extra $310 in taxes during the coming fiscal year.
The $77 difference can be traced directly to an evolving proposal to expand the city’s 18-member police department by hiring two additional officers.
That proposal, along with several competing alternatives, was discussed at length during a Saturday morning session that spanned three hours. Before it was over the projected tax impact of the city budget came into much sharper focus, the already adopted budget for the local elementary school came under fire, the council was divided over the police question, and the only thing that was clear is that members of a newly appointed budget committee have their work cut out for them.
Committee members — five of whom were able to attend Saturday’s session — are scheduled to resume and conclude their deliberations tonight when they meet at the public safety building. If all goes as planned the panel will make its recommendation to the council Tuesday night.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, because, while Mayor Thomas Lauzon said the council will heed the advice of the committee, Councilor Paul Poirier downplayed the group’s role in the budget-building process.
“Theirs is a recommendation,” he said of the committee. “That’s what it is.”
Technically, Poirier is right, though by charter the last word on the budget isn’t the council’s either — it belongs to Mackenzie. However, Mackenzie has embraced a collaborative process, developed a budget he believes is essential to finance the operation of the city, and expressed a willingness to entertain and potentially advocate for strategic adjustments.
Committee members said very little Saturday, though they were lobbied heavily by Poirier and Councilors Charlie Dindo and Michael Boutin to seriously consider a proposal that would spare two school-based police officers while increasing the size of the department from 18 to 20.
Both figures include Chief Tim Bombardier, who also spoke in favor of expanding a department that he described as under-staffed and largely “reactive.”
Poirier argued that two new positions should translate into faster response times, addressing what he claimed is the most frequent complaint he hears about the department.
Lauzon and Councilor Michael Smith said they weren’t sold on the need for two additional officers and openly worried about what it might mean to the tax rate and many of the people who pay it.
According to Lauzon, many residents are just finding out that they will be required to invest in flood insurance due to a looming change in the federal flood maps, are already struggling to make ends meet, and could be overwhelmed if the tax rate spikes by 15.5 cents.
“That’s asking a lot of people,” he said, at one point openly criticizing the city’s school board for balking at his suggestion it revisit a plan to hire a new assistant principal in the context of a budget that reflects a 12 percent spending increase this year.
Though Lauzon later apologized for his admittedly sharp tone, he told Councilor Lucas Herring, who also serves as chairman of the School Board, that he believed the budget increase for the elementary school was excessive and that revenue projections were overly conservative.
The result, according to Lauzon, is a higher than necessary tax rate to support the school system.
Following the brief detour into the merits of the school spending proposal, Lauzon said he remained concerned about hiring two officers a year before the city will be obligated to pick up the cost of a third position that is currently being funded by a federal grant.
Lauzon did say he and other mayors plan to lobby the Legislature to come up with “community support grants” that could aid communities, like Barre, that are home to a disproportionate number of residents who are under the supervision of the state Department of Corrections.
Unfortunately, he said, the results of that effort won’t be known until well after the city’s Town Meeting Day elections.
Like Lauzon, Smith said he might be talked into supporting one additional officer, but believed it would be a mistake to ask for more.
“I just think we’re pounding the taxpayers here,” he said. “We’ve got to go with a very lean budget.”
According to Mackenzie, the $10.36 million budget that represented the starting point for Saturday’s discussion was about as “lean” as he could get it.
“I’m comfortable that the (draft) budget is a reasonable and realistic budget to maintain operations,” he said. “I think it’s lean. There’s no contingency in it.”
The draft budget did not include funding for additional police officers, or for an assistant city manager, but still reflects a spending increase of about $425,000, or just under 4.3 percent, over the $9.93 million municipal budget that was approved by voters a year ago.
According to Mackenzie’s calculations, adding the two officers would boost the budget’s bottom line to $10.54 million — up nearly $610,000 altogether, or a little over 6.1 percent.
Even Poirier said that was a bigger increase than he felt comfortable with.
Poirier urged the committee to find a way to fund the new officers and keep the spending increase below 5 percent.
“You have to decide what your priorities are,” he said.
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