While our Annual Town Meeting is months away, the work is underway now on the budgets that will be up for debate and voted on in April. Both the regional School District and the many Town Departments are reviewing their operations and projecting ahead to the new fiscal year that begins next July. At this stage of formulating budgets citizen input and suggestions can be very helpful.
I often note that budgets are about choices – choices regarding what services are provided and at what level of service, choices about how much taxpayers are willing to pay, and choices about how much we invest in the infrastructure that supports the community. Assuming voters prefer to live within the constraints of Proposition 2 ½ which caps revenue increases to 2 ½ % plus what we see in increased revenue from new construction, (equivalent to another 1% or so) these various choices compete for a finite pool of funds. Thus trade-offs and prioritizing are needed as we consider which choices we make.
It will come as no surprise that the bulk of our town and school expenses stem from salaries and benefits for staff. It takes people to respond to a 911 call, to teach a class or to plow snow. Aside from public safety and the DPW, most town departments only have one or two people thus getting by with fewer people while still providing the needed services is usually very difficult. Non-school staffing levels have remained virtually the same for the past decade with the exception of Parks and Recreation seasonal staff which is supported primarily by user fees.
One particular area we are struggling with is how best to ensure we have sufficient numbers of firefighters and EMT’s (ambulance staff) to respond to fires and medical calls, especially back to back calls. Most towns of our size rely heavily on call fire fighters to respond to emergencies. The number of call fire fighters has shrunk significantly from a high of over 20 to now less than a handful. We have three new recruits who have just started the training but it will take months before they are ready to assist in an emergency. How we can re-invigorate our call force remains a challenge. Our 12 career fire fighters provide the bulk of our needed coverage with four rotating groups of three but with various leave time, there are times when we have two on duty. It may be necessary to hire a 13th career fire fighter as a floater to fill vacant shifts at least until the ranks of the call force increase. Longer term solutions may lie in a regional approach.
It will also come as no surprise that the cost of benefits, particularly health insurance, has grown dramatically. We have moved to plans with higher deductibles and copays. Still, the cost of a Town sponsored family plan exceeds $25,000 annually. We have also increased the amount employees pay. New hires now must pay 35% of the annual cost and current employees will increase their share to 30% over the next couple of years. Despite these efforts we still pay some $1.5 million for employee and retiree health insurance. One piece of good news: we are setting aside funds for future retiree health insurance obligations (OPEB), still a rarity in the municipal world.
Voters have the final say regarding budget choices come the Annual Town Meeting. However, your input now in the formative stages of next fiscal year’s budget is helpful to have. Are you satisfied with municipal service levels? Do you have ideas for improving efficiencies? Are there things the town is doing that are no longer necessary? Let me or Selectmen know your responses to these and other budget related questions sooner rather than later!