We finally had a chance to review the Selectmen’s 2017 proposed budget. The Selectmen had refused to release the details of the budget to the Budget Committee and the public during their review process and it was recently delivered to the Budget Committee several weeks later than past practice. On the surface the 1.1% increase in the bottom line appears to be reasonable. However, when the $519,000 decline in Debt service is taken into account, the Selectmen’s proposal actually reflects an $814,000 or 3.5% increase in Operating spending over 2016. To us, their review process was essentially a rubber-stamping of the Department Heads requests resulting in less than a ½ of 1% reduction from the initial proposal. There appears to be little political will on the part of any of the Selectmen in balancing Department Heads needs and wants with the impact on the taxpayer.
The majority of the Operating budget increase is payroll related, in many cases driven by unnecessarily generous wage increases, including several salary increases which were in the 5% to 10% range. It can be characterized as “Death by 1000 cuts” as approximately $700,000 in increases is spread across 75 wage and benefit line items with a median line item increase of 4.3%. Six overtime lines across several departments increased collectively by $110,000. This is particularly disturbing given that actual spending on overtime had already increased from $1.2 million in 2013 to $1.5 million in 2015. Overtime is a significant factor driving up pension benefits. Is it really necessary to increase overtime by 35% or 40% over a 4-year period? A part time $16 an hour weekend supervisor position at the Transfer Station has been eliminated in the budget and replaced by DPW Managers on overtime at an average hourly cost approaching $50 an hour, more than likely increasing the cost of their pension benefits to taxpayers. The Transfer Station overtime line has increased to over $100,000 from $50,000 five years ago. The NHRS payments have increased by $140,000 part of this is driven by the inclusion of overtime wages. The NHRS payments have increased by 127% over the past 10 years. There appears to be no end in sight for further increases as the State no longer contributes to the Retirement System and those costs are downshifted to the towns.
Some of these items are beyond the control of the town, however, many are manageable. The overall process is purely transactional, lacking any strategic approach. Line items in the budget, as well as warrant articles, are looked at and increased in isolation with little or no consideration or discussion of the aggregate impact on taxpayers and what taxpayers can afford. Annual spending increases are also viewed in isolation with no consideration for the compounded impact of 4% or greater spending increases over 5 or 10 years. Taxpayers are not typically getting the 3% or 5% or 10% increases that the Selectmen are approving for town employees; as an example social security has increased only .3% over the past two years. Things seem to have gotten out of control on union and non-union wages and without more feedback from the public the expense level will just keep on rising. We hope the budget committee will have the resolve to challenge these items and that the Selectmen will revisit the areas of highest increase. We anxiously await the Selectmen’s proposals for money warrant articles as we’re anticipating requests that will bring debt service back to or above last year’s level. We also caution the BOS to not go on a spending spree should there be any surplus this year. The entire process of encumbrances was seriously mishandled and we are not anxious to have a repeat of 2015.
We have posted the overall changes to the 2017 budget for those who are interested in looking at such items. You can view them here.