Bellows Falls village trustees said they want improvements in the police department’s relationship with the community, especially its lack of action against drug dealers.

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BELLOWS FALLS — Bellows Falls village trustee James McAuliffe pushed back against a water and sewer increase proposed for later this year, saying he feels an increase for the village’s utility users isn’t fair if the accounts show a healthy surplus.

But Bellows Falls Finance Director Shannon Burbela said the rate increase is necessary and that the village really has no choice.

“We heard you, we heard you,” said McAuliffe in frustration. “We have to set rates based on what the fund needs.”

“You have no choice, you have to raise rates,” Burbela insisted.

Despite the healthy fund balance, the village has promised the Vermont Bond Bank, its lender for recent required multi-million dollar upgrades to the systems, two years ago that the village would put the utilities’ finances on a more stable track and institute regular, incremental rate increases, rather than a big increase all at once.

But McAuliffe was having none of it, and insisted that any rate increase is not justified at this time.

The trustees have started work on their proposed budget, and expect to finalize it this week in order for it to be ready for a vote next month at the annual village meeting on May 17 and 18.

The trustees are still trying to decide whether to increase the proposed budget for the village police department, as proposed by Manager Scott Pickup and Police Chief David Bemis.

“This is a small community. We don’t want to get back to a $1 million budget,” said Wright, referring to the police portion of the budget.

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One significant expense is having enough data storage for all the police functions, Pickup said. The police are waiting for what Pickup called “guidance” from the state on what exactly needs to be stored, outside of specific cases, and cruiser and officer cameras.

Security of data is also very important, said Burbela.

How to fund police cruisers was also discussed, with the trustees agreeing that money should be set aside on an annual basis, but a cruiser purchased every other year. The department currently has three cruisers, but one is facing significant repairs.

At one point, Burbela suggested taking $55,000 from the village’s project surplus to buy a new police vehicle, but that suggestion didn’t meet with much support.

Pickup said the biggest drain on the cruisers is idling, but he said the village would come up with a rotation or schedule for the cruisers’ use, and better maintenance.

The village instituted a roughly 30 percent increase about 18 months ago because of dire financial shortfalls in the department and pending bond payments that were due.

Village President Deborah Wright said the bond bank had agreed in the past to help the village climb out of its financial mess. She said the trustees are still trying to determine whether and how much of an increase in the water and sewer fees (they are separate) the village would adopt, but she said they wouldn’t take effect until the fall at the earliest.

McAuliffe said that once the trustees get the balance sheets on the water and sewer departments, the village officials should sit down with the Vermont Bond Bank and find out exactly what is needed.

“It’s pretty obvious to me we don’t need to raise rates 3 percent,” he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer

at ssmallheer@reformer.com.