Bellows Falls weighs in on 2018 budget

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BELLOWS FALLS — Kathy Bergmann was one of 26 residents who voted "no" on the fiscal year 2018 village budget that passed on May 15. The 2018 budget requires $1,941,290 to be raised by taxes, increasing Bellows Falls tax rate by 18.6 percent.

Bergmann was one of 112 residents who signed a petition asking for a re-vote of the budget, scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Bellows Falls Opera House. At Thursday's meeting, residents can either approve the 2018 budget, vote it down or amend it. If the budget is voted down, the village will operate on last year's 2017 budget.

"I thought that the police didn't need another officer," Bergmann said.

The 2018 budget has money stored away for the Police Department to hire a 10th officer. Bergmann is a part of growing mindset in Bellows Falls that the Police and Fire department are too expensive for the village to fund.

Bergmann, a former village trustee president, said the trustees made the decision during her tenure to discontinue Fire Department response to ambulance calls.

"What the numbers proved was that the Fire Department had very low response numbers," she said.

Bergmann believes the village needs to rethink its fire and police services. "The Police and Fire department are bankrupting the village," she said, questioning the need for full-time professional rescue personnel. When a fire happens in Bellows Falls, the New Hampshire towns of Winchester, North Walpole and Charlestown respond, she noted, adding that most of those stations are volunteer departments.

"The sad truth of this," Berrgman said, "is that in the last three or four major fires, the building was not saved. The building was lost."

She hopes Thursday's meeting sees better attendance than the May 15 Village Meeting where only 56 people voted on the budget.

"The Village Meeting was a sad representation of people to decide a budget that large," she said.

Municipal Manager Shane O'Keefe worked with the Board of Trustees to make the current budget.

"We carefully went over the budget," he said. "It's a fair budget. It's a tight budget. It provides the services that the village has come to expect."

O'Keefe started in his role as municipal manager in November. He said there were some decisions the trustees made that he had no role in, such as requiring two officers to be on duty at all times, "for safety purposes." The decision was made as a part of a union contract, but it added some costs that were not anticipated in the 2017 budget.

Another unanticipated cost was the board's decision to change municipal managers.The trustees gave the former municipal manager, Willis "Chip" Stearns, a contractual payout.

Lastly, O'Keefe referenced a fire that happened in March. To save the building, the village had to get a crane to take off the roof. That alone was about $55,000, O'Keefe said.

To avoid going over budget in 2018, O'Keefe said the board looked at the past few years' average for overtime. But even with the care put into the budget, O'Keefe said there could still be unanticipated costs in the future. He said that's why the 2018 budget has some extra padding built in for any additional costs.

James McAuliffe voted against the budget during the May 15 meeting, before joining the Board of Trustees, but he now seems to be taking a different approach.

"My recommendation as a trustee is that we pass this budget with the understanding that we have already identified $70,000 worth of savings," he said.

McAuliffe has spent his time on the board examining numbers and attempting to catch up on the budget process. He has determined that the village's fund balance, which he said is currently about $95,000, is too low.

"I think the auditors would recommend we have a bigger number than that," he said. "If we do operate and have a surplus, we will refund our fund balance."

He said the Board of Trustees agreed to look for savings in whatever way possible this year while still offering necessary services. While McAuliffe said necessary services will be retained, he said resources would be re-examined and potentially cut down to be more frugal.

Two of these resources were cut back at Tuesday's board meeting. An attorney will no longer be present at all union negotiations, and the Bellows Falls Fire Department will no longer be responding to EMS calls, effective immediately. O'Keefe estimated that the cost would be $500 to $600. However, the board isn't sure how much money will be saved by forgoing Fire Department response to EMS calls.

O'Keefe said the board intends to monitor closely how much money is saved, and whether there were any safety problems associated.

Deputy Fire Chief Steve Cenate is worried about what might happen at the new budget meeting. He said he's heard talk of amending the budget to make the Fire Department volunteer only.

Cenate said the Fire Department is important to the community. In Bellows Falls, he said, there are many closely-built three-story buildings that present potential fire hazards.

"To maintain readiness we need to keep full-time staff as it currently is," Cenate said. He said that he understands people's frustration with current tax rates — he pays both the Bellows Falls and Rockingham taxes — but he believes it's dangerous to cut fire services. While the frequency of fires has lessened in modern times, Cenate noted that many materials burn hotter and faster now than they did before.

He also doesn't believe there is enough manpower to support a volunteer Fire Department in Bellows Falls. "It's a nationwide issue," Cenate said. "The younger population doesn't seem interested in these types of positions."

For any sort of manual labor job, Cenate said young blood is needed.

"It's a younger person's ball game," he said. While he's had a few young people interested in helping the Fire Department, he said many of them leave or decide the work isn't for them. Putney, he said, is facing a similar problem attempting to staff its fire department.

Cenate said the Fire Department has been asking people to go out and vote.

"Obviously we want people to vote for the budget, but the biggest thing is that people come out and vote," he said.

The current proposed 2018 budget would keep fire staff intact.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.

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