Thoughts of Chairwoman Hutchings

By Muriel Bristol (Transcriber) | April 12, 2020

Item #4 on the agenda for the Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting of Monday, April 6, 2020, was a Default Budget Discussion. Chairwoman Hutchings led off the discussion by reading a statement compiled by she and Town Administrator Ernest Creveling.

Chairwoman Hutchings: Okay, I’ve been kind of talking to [Town Administrator] Ernie a little bit, and we’ve been throwing some ideas back and forth, and that on the default budget, with the coronavirus and that, so, since I’ve gotten so great at reading this evening, do you all mind if I go ahead and just read?.

Vice-Chairman Rawson: No.

Selectman Morrill: Have at it.

Hutchings: You might get to have some input.

Hutchings [reading from a prepared text]: The voters have stated very clearly that they want to see budget cuts. Department heads and members of the previous Board of Selectmen were stating the same thing as early as last September when we really got started in developing the budget. The mantra for many became “We need to come in with a budget that is no more than the default budget in order for it to pass.” 

To clarify, last year’s voter-adopted budget was the default budget, as developed in the 2018 budget season for the 2019 warrant. This year’s voter-adopted budget was the default budget as developed in the 2019 budget season for the 2020 warrant. That scenario has played itself out six times since 2009. Once the selectmen submitted their proposed budget to the Budget Committee in 2019, the Budget Committee met several times and made the budget its own by carving the numbers down by $45,514 to a point $1,376 less than last year’s adopted [default] budget. Hoping that their efforts would put Milton on the path to adopted operating budget as proposed, instead of a rejection, which would again placed us under a default budget.

Complicating the matter further, there have been errors made in calculating the default budget in 2018, making it over $30,000 higher than it should have been. So, even though the Budget Committee did offer a budget on the 2020 warrant that was less than 2019’s adopted budget, the competing default budget on the ballot this past March was substantially lower. In fact, $34,679 lower to be exact, and the voters chose the lower number, once again sending their message loudly and clearly.

Not only did the voters reject the proposed operating budget, in favor of the default budget, but they also rejected every appropriation warrant article on the ballot this year, except for two capital reserve fund articles related to technology. I think that was the GIS and then the Technology Fund itself. Together totaling only $5,000, and another article in the amount of $10,000 to fight the invasive plant species in Milton Three Ponds. [See Town Election Results for March 10, 2020].

Finally, the voters accentuated their message with a sledge hammer, with the approval of a tax cap that was placed on the warrant by petition. It seems that despite the fact that the voters have over and over, as many times as not, rejected proposed budgets in favor of default budgets, both the Budget Committee and the selectmen have misinterpreted the message the voters have been trying to send.

That message, I believe, is this: voters want a substantial cut in the amount of money it costs to live in Milton, specifically, in terms of what they have to pay in property taxes. This Board has responsibility to heed that message. Milton voters, as a legislative body of the town of Milton, established budgetary limitations within which we must operate. For every year they are given only two options, the proposed and default budgets. Everyone who said that the goal should be to bring our budget proposals to the voters at or below the default budget were correct, but only partially correct.

What we really need to do is to understand voters’ collective price point and then develop a budget that brings the most responsible and safe level of services possible to them. Our job now is to determine that price point by communicating with our residents, educating them about regulatory mandates with which we have no choice but to comply, and then translating what we all learn together into responsible policies by the Board of Selectmen.

We know there are variables which cannot always be predicted accurately: hard winters with an abundance of snow, prolonged rain events resulting in flooding, wind, non-weather-related public safety issues with police and fire, and others that may not be even on our radar when a budget is developed, like this pandemic for example. In order to safeguard us from budget over expenditures this year, the selectmen need to make some early decisions.

Hutchings: And I listed some of the things I believe we need to consider. Do you want to take a minute to look at them?

Rawson: I mean, I wish we would have gotten this prior to the meeting.

Hutchings: It was a lot of work. And this is just a discussion, that is all it is, just talking about …

Chairwoman Hutchings continued with her “list of things”:

One. Large-ticket purchases. An operating budget spending freeze on non-Covid19-related large-ticket items should be enacted right away until we can get a handle on where things are going as a result of both the default budget and the pandemic. This does not include items for which money has been encumbered from last year’s budget, items encumbered from the unanticipated revenue that the town received at the end of the year last year, the what, $74,000?, or scheduled or needed purchases from existing capital reserve funds.

Two. Staff shortages. As of April 17, Public Works will be down four employees. We are presently down one part-time position in the Recreation Department – the assistant rec. director – two officers in the Police Department, one is militarily deployed, so that is a reserved vacancy that cannot be filled. Keeping positions filled in the Police Department has been difficult, as it always is when small municipalities are forced to compete with larger and/or wealthier communities for law-enforcement professionals.

The same issues are at play with the Fire Department for that reason, and also because smaller communities have had less success in recent years recruiting and maintaining responsive volunteer call rosters than was possible in the past. That is no reflection on the incredible men and women who do work on a volunteer or on-call basis. It’s more of a reflection of what people’s work and family situations are, and the fact that many of those volunteer first-responders have full-time jobs in other communities, along with the increased time commitment that is required to meet more stringent training and certification requirements which have grown over the years.

We have had similar issues in the Department of Public Works, which at the beginning of 2019 compelled the Board of Selectmen to approve a change in wages because a number of talented and experienced people left their jobs for better pay with other employers. Several other adjustments in wages were made at the end of 2019 in other departments to try and maintain equity in the wage structure, which is always a complicated endeavor in any organization. None of these increases could be carried forward into the default budget.

The economy, up until at least a few weeks ago when the coronavirus pandemic hit us with unexpected fury, was firing on all cylinders, creating a shortage of qualified workers and insurmountable competition from larger communities with more resources. That has changed rapidly, with 6.6 million people in the United States filing for unemployment just last week, with rapidly growing numbers here in the State of New Hampshire as well. According to Richard Lavers, the deputy commissioner of New Hampshire Unemployment Security who stated in response to a question posed to him by news anchor Tom Griffith that under normal circumstances in the week before the coronavirus crisis, they saw 500 new applications for unemployment; the first week of the crisis they received 28,000 new claims, and in the second another 29,000 new claims.

We don’t know for certain what that will mean for Milton, but we will begin to understand better over the next few weeks. What we do know is that we need to be prudent in our spending now and that this will also require the same approach in developing a budget for 2021. Some of the positions mentioned above will remain vacant to ensure that there is money available for any short-term needs that arise due to the pandemic. Also, we do not want to fill positions that may be eliminated as we work through the redevelopment of the budget for 2021. Responding to the message our friends and neighbors keep sending us, over and over again, year after year.

[Three.] Transfer to cover the raises. This is the one that hurts, the numbers don’t lie. There will be budgetary transfers required from areas of the operating budget this year to cover wage increases that were given by the Board of Selectmen last year and in 2018. These adjustments total roughly $95,566. This has required us also to leave some of the above described positions vacant, [and] to lay off one part-time position from Administration.

I have met with the Town Administrator and through information we have compiled the following are reservations of money that we think should be considered earmarked for the time being to offset the Covid-related expenses until we can reassess where we stand as this crisis continues into the year. And there’s a list of suggestions.

Obviously, I’ll say it up front, police and fire department, it’s kind of hard to touch them, as first-responders they’re out there on the front lines, especially right now dealing with the Covid. We don’t know from one day to the next if somebody’s going to have to be quarantined or, you know, what’s going to happen there. They’re in a … there are no adjustments that I think that we can make to that. Highway and government buildings, as I said, they’re down, or going to be down April 17, four employees. Do you want me to read the rest, or are you …?

Creveling: Do you want me to just explain that?

Hutchings: Yeah, how about … can we?

Creveling: Under the highway and government buildings, I’ve worked with [DPW Director] Pat to take a look at, you know, what is going on. Now, just to go back to the transfers to cover the raises, I think, you know, a couple of years ago, it sort of started, people were under the impression that when some of these raises were given they would be carried forward in the default budget, but that just isn’t the case. But you were losing people, you still had to make the decision to give raises to keep people from leaving and, so, what that ends up casting into when you do that kind of thing is that $95,000, because any of the raises that were given at the end of 2018 and into 2019, none of them were able to carry forward in the default budget and that’s what you got in both of those years.

So, moving forward into the … what we looked at was a 5% reservation from the administration budget itself, which totals a little over $14,000, and then there was the remaining salary line in Welfare, which was another $14,400, for a total of about $28,000 [$28,400], just to sort of earmark for any of these unexpected expenses. Again, Police and Fire, just don’t touch them at this point, they’re out there doing the dangerous work in this environment, and it’s hard enough to keep folks anyway in those areas, so kudos to them and thank you for the work you’re doing.

Highway and government buildings, I mean, these folks, they work hard as well, but they will be down four employees. As of April 17, we just got a notice here from someone we will be very sorry to lose. But the budget for both highway and building and grounds together is about $845,000.

The default budget contained the amount for two unfilled positions that, again, were at the old rate of pay, $16 per hour essentially, So, figuring out the amount of leaving two of those positions unfilled, one in highway and one in buildings and grounds, it ends up keeping about $71,600. So, as a result of that, looking at a 10% of the combined budgets set aside of about $84,555.

And then in the health insurance, you’ve got one, two, three, four, five, six vacancies now that you’ve just counted in that bunch, so I think you can go into the health insurance and set aside the cost of two family plans, which is an additional $668088.

So, by the time you add up those reservations, if you call them – if you look at the – must finish the handout, which we will put up on the website when the meeting is over – the total reservation is $180,285 less than the $95,566 that needs to be redistributed for the previously town-approved …, or the raises given beyond the previously town-approved wage plans, that leaves a balance of about $84,700 to be reserved for Covid-related expenditures until re-evaluated.

And then, again, you know, it’s one of those things, I think I had put together an article to put out there in a blog that we’re working on, you know, to keep people informed but then the Covid crisis hit and it just kind of threw everything over to the side. So, there are some proposals that we can … I’ll be happy to talk about them later on, if you want to discuss this yourselves.

The other selectmen did favor us with their thoughts (which have not been transcribed here (perhaps separately)).


Ed. note: One of our correspondents has pointed out that, by the terms of Article 28A of the New Hampshire constitution, Milton is not required to comply with any unfunded State programs or regulatory mandates:

[Art.] 28-a. [Mandated Programs.] The state shall not mandate or assign any new, expanded or modified programs or responsibilities to any political subdivision in such a way as to necessitate additional local expenditures by the political subdivision unless such programs or responsibilities are fully funded by the state or unless such programs or responsibilities are approved for funding by a vote of the local legislative body of the political subdivision. November 28, 1984.

Unless, of course, the “local legislative body” is misguided enough to vote to adopt and pay for such measures through increased local taxation and without the required State funding.

State legislators and regulators spend much of their time devising ever more costs for us. They seem to feel that they are always just one law, regulation or tax away from achieving some sort of perfection. Obviously, they are wrong, and they’ll be back next year with the next step. Live your life and just say “No.”

References:

State of New Hampshire. (2019). State Constitution. Retrieved from www.nh.gov/glance/constitution.htm

Town of Milton. (2020, April 6). BOS Meeting, April 6, 2020. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=AseNUlSoUK8&t=1327

Author: Muriel Bristol

"Lady drinking tea"

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