Barre budget: Council adds in two officers
BARRE — If you were looking for a catch phrase for Barre’s budget building process this year, “officers need assistance” would surely fit the bill.
They may yet get some, as city councilors ignored the recommendation of their budget committee and narrowly rejected the budget proposed by City Manager Steve Mackenzie in favor of one that includes funding for two new police officers.
In a pair of split decisions that Councilor Michael Smith described as “irresponsible” and Mayor Thomas Lauzon worried could put a bull’s-eye on this year’s budget request, a slim four-member majority approved a budget they said put safety first.
It just wasn’t the one recommended by the committee that spent six sessions reviewing the spending plan, or by Mackenzie, who conceded the decision to expand the local police force was a “political” one that should be made by the council.
Councilor Paul Poirier, who had pushed for extra police positions based on constituents’ complaints about slow response times and a desire for a more visible police presence, led the charge. He thanked the recently appointed committee for its service but expressed dismay that its members opted not to include funding for any additional officers.
“I’m disappointed... and for that reason I will not vote favorably for this budget,” he said. “I respect all the work that’s gone into this, but I cannot ignore the No. 1 issue that I’ve heard about.”
Poirier was joined by peers Charlie Dindo, Lucas Herring and Michael Boutin, who all spoke in favor of increasing funding for a police department they argued was understaffed.
As he promised, Lauzon said he would abide by the committee’s recommendation, acknowledging he would have preferred to see one new officer included in the budget.
“Where you ended up isn’t necessarily where I would have ended up, but I will accept your recommendations because I think it’s important to build consensus,” he told committee members. “At the end of the day we’ve got to keep the city affordable.”
That was before Poirier said he planned to vote against the no-new-officers budget. Dindo, Herring and Boutin lined up behind him, setting the stage for the 4-3 rejection of the budget proposed by Mackenzie, who earned praise from the committee for his hard work.
The divided council went on to do what the committee refused to the previous evening, voting 4-3 to add $190,000 to the budget to cover the cost of two new police officers.
Lauzon said the decision, which bumps the projected tax rate increase associated with the proposed budget over 6 percent, could create a Town Meeting Day backlash.
“We will be back here having a budget discussion on March 6,” he predicted.
Mackenzie, who chose not to include funding for more police in a budget that already reflected a $365,000 spending increase, said he understood. He said he could advocate for additional police officers but that it could come at a cost.
“It increases the difficulty exponentially of passing the budget,” he said.
Smith, who joined Lauzon and Anita Chadderton in voting in the minority, called the decision irresponsible.
“I’m not putting it on the taxpayers of the city of Barre, because I don’t feel they can afford it,” he said, echoing sentiments expressed by committee members who cited a still-sluggish economy and the already significant tax increase that will be needed just to maintain current services.
The committee, Smith said, got it right.
At the behest of the committee, Mackenzie managed to trim an additional $53,000 before Tuesday’s council meeting. The reductions dropped the bottom line of the budget to just under $10.3 million — an increase of approximately $365,000, or 3.64 percent.
The projected tax rate increase for that budget — 5.85 cents — was 3.7 percent.
Those numbers went out the window when the council chose to boost spending by an additional $190,000, pushing the projected tax rate increase to nearly 6.1 percent.
The plan to expand the local police department seemingly ran into a roadblock Monday night when budget committee members couldn’t bring themselves to support the measure.
The committee, which reported the result of its deliberations to city councilors Tuesday night, concluded that adding staff wouldn’t be wise in a community where the cost of municipal services is already climbing at more than twice the rate of inflation and affordability is an issue for many residents, particularly those on fixed incomes.
Committee member John Hannigan drove that point home during a session that spanned three hours and focused as much on how to “sell” the budget as it did on what should be included in its bottom line.
Though Hannigan conceded he liked the sound of a beefed-up police force, he said unless grant money is secured to pay for the positions, hiring two new officers is a luxury the city cannot afford.
“I’m driving a 15-year-old pickup. I’d like a brand new one. But, you know what? My budget says I ain’t getting one this year,” he said.
Hannigan’s taxpayer’s-eye-view was shared by many committee members — including one who said he believed deeper cuts were needed to the $10.35 million budget proposed by Mackenzie.
Committee member Jeff Friot said he would like to see the tax increase needed to support the city budget limited to 3 percent — roughly 1 percentage point less than the tax hike that was reflected in Mackenzie’s no-frills baseline budget. Adding police without identifying offsetting reductions would take the budget in the wrong direction, he said.
Friot proposed “sprinkling” modest cuts across most non-personnel areas of the budget to trim the tax increase to what he viewed as a more tolerable level.
Mackenzie said he would go through that exercise but openly questioned whether it would yield enough money to hit what he described as an incredibly elusive target.
“My goal has always been to bring a budget in at (a) 3 percent (increase) or less,” he said. “It’s just a daunting if not impossible challenge.”
Mackenzie reminded the committee the budget has a built-in $30,000 deficit, assumes health insurance costs will climb by 20 percent, reflects no increase in fuel costs and level-funds the salt for the street department. He said it also reflects roughly $150,000 in reductions that can be traced to his decision to shift some expenses, including an ambulance lease and money for two new police cruisers, out of the operating budget and into a capital budget.
According to Mackenzie, the capital budget will be funded this year with a portion of the money that has been used in recent years to pay for a street reconstruction program. That program, he said, has been very successful and has consistently enjoyed voter support. However, to find seed money for a more robust capital budget, he said, the city is planning a “one-time hiatus” from street work.
Committee members never seriously considered a proposal to pull either of two school-based officers off their current assignments and put them on the street.
Mackenzie told the committee that he viewed its stamp of approval as an opportunity to add “credibility” to his claims the budget he had proposed was both reasonable and realistic.
“You folks are the closest thing to the voting public that we have in this process,” he said.
After Tuesday’s council meeting Hannigan said he had only one question about the budget.
“How much is it going to fail by?” he said.
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