BELLOWS FALLS — At least two members of the Rockingham Select Board pushed town administrators Tuesday night to come up with a proposed town budget that would hopefully reduce property taxes.
Town Manager Scott Pickup and Town Finance Director Shannon Burbela unveiled about half of the 2021-22 town budget Tuesday evening, with Pickup noting that the other half of the budget would be outlined at a later meeting.
Chairman Gaetano Putignano and Select Board member Stefan Golec said the recent shut down of businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic put many residents in a precarious financial position, and the town should be sensitive and responsive to their positions.
Putignano said that orders from the governor’s office shutting down businesses — in particular bars and clubs — is putting people out of work.
While Rockingham hasn’t had a big problem with delinquent taxes, Golec said, that doesn’t mean it won’t start being a problem in the future. Golec, who was not wearing a mask at the meeting, said he knew of many residents or their partners who were without work. People are struggling to pay their taxes, he said.
“I’ll echo that,” said Putignano.
Burbela said the budget is pretty close to level funded, and if money is taken out of the town’s fund balance, it would help.
She said one of the only increases included in the proposed budget is for increasing the development director’s job to full time, but that she and Pickup will ask the Bellows Falls Village Trustees to share in funding the position, which is held by Gary Fox.
Burbela said there is currently only about $200,000 in delinquent taxes, and she said going to tax sale is an expensive enterprise. There is currently $50,000 included in the budget for tax sales, she said, and the money could be used elsewhere.
Putignano and Golec were the only board members to talk about austerity. Select Board member Susan Hammond’s only comment was that level-funding for paving is not a good idea.
Select Board member Peter Golec noted that 17 cents of the town tax rate is due to debt service on bonds or other financial commitments the town has made.
Select Board member Ben Masure was absent.
Pickup, who has been on the job for about a month, said he senses that townspeople are not looking for big changes in the level of services.
“The public is still looking for the same level,” he said, while noting that the town still has many unknowns to face before formulating a budget.
One bright note, he said, is that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are home, and using more water and wastewater, which will result in additional funds to the Bellows Falls village.
He said the town is still looking to recoup many of its COVID-19 related expenses from the state and CARES Act funding. He said the town’s additional expenses totaled about $50,000. “We have grants in the works,” he said.
Last spring, acting Town Manager Chuck Wise laid off three Town Hall employees, but Burbela and Pickup both mentioned the need to fill those positions, on a part-time basis.
Burbela said there is no one in charge of coordinating maintenance and repairs in the Town Hall and other buildings, and Pickup noted that the town needs an assistant to help the listers and planning.
Pickup noted the town is headed to a new evaluation, putting more work on the listers, and that the five-year tax agreement with Great River Hydro, the owner of the Bellows Falls hydroelectric dam and the town’s biggest taxpayer, is nearing an end and would need attention.
“We need to do some preparation,” he said.
Pickup said a potential big issue is the recycling center, which is not self-supporting. He said he hopes the center will become self-supporting in about two years, once changes are made both to the center’s operation and its finances.
The operation of the Rockingham Free Public Library, which gets its funding from the town but is independent of the town Select Board and budget, also came up for a brief discussion. The library has its own elected board of directors, who formulate the budget.
Resident Jim Mitchell questioned why there have been no staff reductions given that the library has been largely closed to the public during the pandemic. The library is currently closed to in-person visits, as are many town libraries.
Mitchell urged the board to “take a serious look” at the library finances.