Not much change following Village Meeting Day

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BELLOWS FALLS — Taxes in the Village of Bellows Falls are expected to remain stable in fiscal 2019 as a result of voters' decisions during the annual Village Meeting Day on Monday.

Voters approved a village budget of $1,697,250, a reduction of $85,850 from the current spending plan, by a vote of 43-10, with one spoiled ballot. They also approved to raise and allocate $75,000 for the village's fund balance, with 37 voting yes and 17 voting no. Despite passing all articles that were up for a vote on Monday, voters still took time to question the trustees.

Village President Myles Mickle emphasized the importance of this year's budget. "The thing to keep in mind is that we kept this budget under the $1,783,100 budget last year," he said. "This is primarily a service budget."

Last year, the trustees were forced to make significant service cuts after voters cut $241,290 from the proposed budget. Trustees tempered some of the costs by laying off four of their full-time firefighters. After creating an on-call fire department with a full-time fire chief, trimming other budget line items and trying to reduce staff overtime, trustees felt confident they could reduce the budget even further.

After hearing the trustees present their case, James Mitchell moved that the proposed budget be cut by $243,000. He claimed the police department budget of $1,158,560 is unsustainable.

"Mr. McAuliffe," he said to Trustee James "Jiggs" McAuliffe, "a year ago you described the two gorillas in the room. They were both fire and police."

"There are ways to reduce that budget," Mitchell said, suggesting that Police Chief Ron Lake schedule officers differently and rely more on part-time officers. However, Mitchell also wanted at least two officers on duty at all times and a full-time dispatcher. He said the police department needs to follow the fire department's lead to become a " leaner, meaner, fighting machine."

Mitchell also felt that Lake wasn't doing enough for the department. "We've had 10 years under this chief," he said, "and crimes have gone up, he's admitted that."

McAuliffe distanced himself from the proposal, clarifying that he and Mitchell hadn't had any private conversations about the budget.

McAuliffe explained that when he had referred to the "gorilla in the room," he was addressing the fact that police and fire comprise most of the Bellows Falls budget. "I wasn't saying we should kill the gorilla," he said. "I encourage everyone to vote against this amendment. I think it's irresponsible."

Other trustees were confused about what Mitchell wanted. Mickle asked, "You would like us to reduce the police budget with this motion and you want two officers on duty at all times and a full-time dispatch? That all means increases."

Mitchell maintained that there are ways services could be increased while decreasing the police budget. "We're not in the promised land," he said.

The amendment was put to a voice vote, with Mitchell the only person voting in favor.

While Mitchell wanted to decrease the police budget, some voters questioned whether there are enough police services. Gaetano Putignano, a Rockingham Select Board member and an owner of 802 E-Cig Supply on Rockingham St., wanted to know if the trustees had allocated any money in the budget for parking enforcement, which is a particularly big issue for business owners. In past trustee meetings, Putignano has said that the lack of parking enforcement near his business deters customers.

Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe said he was waiting on state approval to determine whether he could get a volunteer parking enforcement officer. He said there were no funds allocated for increased parking enforcement this budget cycle. The proposal to raise and allocate $75,000 to the village's fund balance was a more contentious issue. The $75,000 was proposed to be raised by taxes, which would effectively make the village tax rate the same as last year, despite the decreased budget.

McAuliffe explained that the village's auditors had determined that the village needs 16 to 20 percent of its expenditures within its fund balance. At the close of FY 2017, the fund balance had only $64,092. McAuliffe expects it will go down further by the end of fiscal 2018 because the village is expected to run a small deficit. The minimum amount of money the village would need in its fund balance to be in good financial standing is $267,875. This money could help in case of emergencies and indicates to lenders that the village is in good financial standing.

"As of now, [the auditors] haven't taken action to diminish financial reports," McAuliffe said. He also emphasized that $75,000 wouldn't be enough to get the fund balance to where it needs to be, but that it would be a start.

McAuliffe's wife, Nancy McAuliffe, a former trustee board member, was one of several people who questioned the need for such a high fund balance. "$75,000 isn't real small though," she said.

Mickle explained that the board had presented the village with a smaller proposed allocation of $58,000 last year and it wasn't passed. State Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Windham-3, asked if having such a high fund balance was really necessary. "It seems like a pie in the sky number," he said. He added that the state doesn't have 16 percent of its expenditures in its fund balance. McAuliffe pointed out that Rockingham exceeded the requirements for its fund balance.

"My feeling, personally, is that it's a lot of fund balance to need but that $80,000 is not enough," he said.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch@reformer.com, at @Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, Ext. 153.

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