BELLOWS FALLS -- The village's board of trustees on Tuesday finalized a seven-figure budget that will go up for a vote by residents at Village Meeting in May.
The proposed budget of $1,851,602 in expenditures (with $1,803,252 to be raised by taxes) passed unanimously and includes the $6,500 that Trustee Andrew Smith requested for enforcement of the village's safe building ordinance, though it momentarily appeared as though Smith had missed his chance.
Trustee Charlie Hunter made a motion to adopt a proposed budget of $1,845,102 (with $1,796,752 to be raised by taxes) and, after it was seconded by Trustee Colin James, Smith explained to his colleagues why he had meant to add $6,500 to the figures. The motion was then unanimously struck down and Smith made a motion to adopt the amended budget.
The budget, and other monetary articles, will be voted on at Village Meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. in the Bellows Falls Opera House on Monday, May 19. Australian ballot voting for elected officials will be held the following day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Masonic Temple.
Earlier in the meeting, Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II spoke about a memo provided to each trustee in which he explains Bellows Falls Fire Chief Bill Weston has requested a letter of support for a grant from TransCanada. Weston has submitted a grant proposal to the North American energy giant for $4,550 in safety equipment.
At the trustees' previous meeting, a motion was made to authorize Stearns to send a letter of support, but it failed because there were just three trustees present (James, Smith and Hunter) and only two voted in favor of the motion. James voted against the motion because he feels safety equipment should be included in the budget and he kept his vote on a similar motion Tuesday for the same reason. Hunter had suggested drafting a letter stating the $4,550 in safety equipment is simply not in the proposed budget. Stefan Golec and James voted in opposition to the letter, but Hunter, Smith and Village President Roger Riccio voted to authorize Stearns to send it.
James told the Reformer after the meeting that he voted against the motion because the village is in budget season and should factor in the safety equipment.
"I'm not against grants, but we're in budget season, so my view is, ‘Let's just put it in the budget,'" he said.
Also, the trustees rejected a request from the Saxtons River Village Board of Trustees that the agreement with Bellows Falls to operate the Saxtons River wastewater treatment plant remain at a 3 percent increase per year, as opposed to the nearly 4 percent increase proposed by the Bellows Falls trustees.
According to an e-mail from Stearns, Saxtons River Trustee Chairwoman Louise Luring said she was requesting the reduction because "our users are facing considerable increases in their fees as we upgrade our plant, so we are endeavoring to keep the fee at its current rate so that we can put money into our reserve to offset the costs of upgrading."
Luring said the Saxtons River annual report is due out March 28.
The trustees discussed the matter, but the majority seemed to think it was generous enough to have an agreement with a 4 percent increase. Hunter asked Luring, who was in attendance Tuesday, what her reason was for requesting an increase of only 3 percent. Luring said her village was not given any explanation for the jump, as the agreements in the past have always included a 3 percent hike per year. She said the 4 percent figure seems arbitrary.
Smith said the treatment plant is a business, much like a house-painting service or car repair shop, and he believes it's unlikely Saxtons River would inquire about justification for any increase in an agreement with any other enterprise. He also said he sees his village's expenses steadily increasing over the years.
Hunter acknowledged Bellows Falls could have done a better job of providing reasons for the proposed 4 percent-per-year increase and said he would be satisfied if the rate was set at 3.5 percent, making a motion suggesting that rate.
"We're just trying to increase, as any responsible steward would, our margin with a responsible, good-neighbor percentage," he said.
When asked how he felt about the agreement, Stearns said he agrees with the 3 percent, which he said had been a pattern for nine years (worth a 27 percent increase in that time).
"Has it cost you 27 percent more in 10 years? I don't think so," he said. "It's fair and reasonable, in my mind, to keep it at 3 percent. That's what I recommended before -- the board chose 4."
Smith said he and his colleagues owe it to the ratepayers who have been investing for generations in municipal utilities to "stay a step ahead of cost increases when it comes to contracts for services outside the village."
Hunter and Riccio voted in favor of the motion, but James, Smith and Golec defeated it with no votes.
In other business:
-- The Bellows Falls trustees also discussed the potential impact on the tax rate if they were to purchase a new pick-up truck requested by Chief Weston. According to an e-mail from Weston to Stearns, the engine in the pick-up his department currently uses has started to "knock," which will likely get worse and cause the engine to fail. There are also problems with the vehicle's heater fan motor, suspension and steering, and the back bumper is severely rusted.
Resident Clark Barber stood up and said he doesn't understand the point of purchasing a new pick-up truck, when it is not a vehicle equipped with apparatus needed to battle fires. He said enough vehicles have been purchased for the fire department in recent years.
"The money would be better spent in other places," he said. "Use some common sense here, fellas, and try to save us some money."
Golec said he did some homework on his own and found a 2014 Ram 2500 Tradesman for sale and passed out packets of information on the vehicle. The cost to the village for truck would be $38,789, though $1,101 would be deducted if the RamBOX cargo management system is not desired. The vehicle has air conditioning, dual front airbags and silver-styled steel wheels, among other features. The trustees took no action on this matter.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.