Select Board begins budget process
MANCHESTER — The Manchester Select Board held a working session on Dec. 21 to take a first look at the upcoming budget, which as proposed would produce a 3.1 percent increase in property tax spending.
The proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, including town-voted appropriations, is $3,381,093, a $101,920 increase over the current fiscal year 2019 budget of $3,279,173.
A steady stream of department heads filtered through the all-day session as the board went through the proposed budget department by department, asking questions about increases or decreases compared to this year.
Town Manager John O'Keefe said the day was essentially an introduction to the budget.
O'Keefe said department heads submitted budget requests and he worked them into a budget with an eye toward containing costs.
Most of the budget presentations were uneventful, given the relatively minor changes proposed. But one exception was the discussion about the fire department.
The department's leadership, including Chief Chris Towslee, First Assistant Chief Bill Beideman, and Second Assistant Jamie Greene, made their case for the board to start addressing equipment replacement needs, and meet at a spending plan between what they sought and what O'Keefe had felt was a reasonable and
prudent budget request.
O'Keefe said he understood where they were coming from and didn't begrudge them challenging his budget. But he also thought that some of his adjustments made sense, such as spreading radio replacements over three years instead of two.
The firefighters said they fully understood the budget situation but hoped the board could find a way to do what they could to improve the funding situation for the department.
The volunteer firefighters said they were constantly fundraising and had purchased many of the department's needs themselves without asking the town for money from the budget.
But the department's leadership is also new to the budget process. They have all assumed leadership positions fairly recently and said the budgeting process is new for them, so sitting down with the board was helpful and enlightening.
But, that didn't mean the fire department doesn't need a few things on a fairly urgent basis, and they let the board members know.
"It's a work in progress," Towslee said. "Nothing in our budget is a want. It's a need."
That's one of the messages the leadership team made to the board. They told board members that issues that may have been wants in the past have reached a point that they are now needs.
The board listened and assured the fire department that it's a priority, but also said some of the issues that have been left unfunded for a number of years can't be corrected all at once.
"Let's consider this a transition year," said Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie. "There is a disconnect between you guys and the people who ultimately make the decisions, which are the voters."
And board member Wayne Bell told the fire department leadership that the board would "never allow a budget decision to become an issue of safety for department members."
The department leadership told the board that all of the things they were discussing could potentially be considered safety issues, including pagers, portable radios, air cylinders, maintenance on their pumps, and truck maintenance, among other things.
They said air cylinders cost $1,000 each and have a 15-year shelf life, so the department tries to buy five at a time to keep rotating out older cylinders and replace them with new ones.
That has proven more important in recent years because of the number of fires to which the department has responded.
"We didn't have a fire for six years," Towslee said. "We've had four this year. You have to have the air cylinders. You have to have the radios, the air packs. Nothing in here is a want. Everything on this list is a need."
Towslee said he respects O'Keefe for watching the bottom line and ensure the board is given a prudent budget. All he asks for is the same respect, he said.
"I respect John for what he has to do and I hope you respect us for what we have to do," Towslee said. "It's been a long time coming."
The next Select Board meeting will be held Tuesday, Jan. 8, when the board will continue to consider the budget and potentially make adjustments.
"They will start to refine the budget, O'Keefe said. "Board members will be making adjustments to the proposed numbers. The decisions from here on forward are the tough ones."
Contact Darren Marcy at email@example.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.
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