The Town Administrator's budget message goes on to say that “the proposal will: (1) renew investment in deteriorating infrastructure by supplementing the road maintenance and construction budgets, (2) renew our commitment to public safety through the addition of a patrol officer/school resource officer, (3) renew protection of our natural environment through additional conservation staff, (4) renew our better management practices at the landfill and wastewater plants while cutting costs, and (5) renew and re-double efforts to find savings and economies of scale to reduce costs including improved efficiencies in assessing and GIS mapping”.
Clearly, the theme of renewal strikes a positive note in light of the devastating year our community has faced. That said, one recognizes the value of a cautious, almost skeptical approach when faced with a metaphorical theme being presented to justify a proposed 4.2% budget increase. Inclusive in the Town Administrator’s budget is what is classified as “a fair and affordable 2 per cent wage hike for all non-union employees”. Fair and affordable are of course relative terms, particularly when juxtaposed against the significant financial burden many residents are shouldering under the weight of increased taxes as well as a 68% increase (approximate) in water and sewer rates - all of which have descended upon us at once.
Additional elements of the 4.2 proposed include increased staffing or hours in the following:
- Police: 6.8% or $131,238 for increased staffing/department requests
- Public Works: 4.3% or $33,650 for increased staffing
- Assessing Department: 28.1% or $37,640 for increased staffing, wages, software
- Conservation Department: 23.1% or $15,861 for increased staffing
- Building Department: 23.4% or $12,532 towards increased staff hours
- “Economic Growth”: $120,000 for development of a Commercial Tourist District Engineering Plan
Undoubtedly, one could argue that these proposed increases are modest when viewed against the totality of a $26.6 million dollar budget and that we “need to invest” in our community if we are to thrive. Perhaps so, but then again, one could equally argue that the $50 plus million dollars in new debt we have incurred over the past five years, clearly and unequivocally demonstrates a significant investment in our community and that now the time has come to initiate some real restraint. For those who watched our most recent budget hearings, there is no question that I have chosen the later over the former, as has some other members of the Board.
As such, I have made it clear that I will not support any additional hours in the Conservation Department, beyond the dedicated 20 hours per week of staff support currently serving the Conservation Agent, nor will I support any additional hours in the Building Department. With no reservation whatsoever, I am firmly convinced there has been no justification for these increases, beyond passionate pleas replete with a “laundry list” of “demands” facing these departments. To be clear, were we to base our decisions in terms of increased hours on the passion of those presenting a “laundry list” of “demands”, there is little doubt that every department could construct such a catalog of “needs”. Despite repeated calls from the Board of Selectmen for a comprehensive review of staffing levels within Town Government; this has yet to be done. As such, one must exercise restraint and extreme caution when contemplating any decisions regarding staffing levels that appear to be based solely upon subjective advocacy
Equally, I am unable to support the proposed spending specific to a Commercial Tourist District engineering plan, as such would be - in my view, irresponsible at this time. True enough this engineering plan will provide a blueprint for future improvement in the Commercial Tourist District and no one has been a stronger advocate for such than I. That said, I am reminded daily as I journey door-to-door throughout our community that far too many residents are struggling in silence under the weight of our current financial burden and this is simply not the time to be spending money on discretionary items.
Additionally, despite the great respect I have for our valued and hard-working town employees, I cannot support the Town Administrators proposed “fair and affordable 2 per cent wage hike for all non-union employees”. While all too many residents are unemployed, underemployed, or facing wage and benefit reductions in order to maintain their jobs, there is no amount of justification that would enable me to support a 2% wage hike on the backs of struggling taxpayers. Though some may argue that union employees have seen modest wage hikes this year and therefore it is only “fair” for non-union employees to receive same, it must be remembered that collective bargaining by its very nature presents significant challenges to municipalities in terms of cost containment.
Federal mandates, arbitration, and mediation dictate the approach in terms of addressing collective bargaining agreements. This, in and of itself can present significant challenges in terms of cost containment. That said, the majority of current Board members have taken a very conservative approach to negotiation and have exercised great restraint on behalf of our community.
Beyond these items, there are some remaining proposals that for me at least, the “jury remains out" on as we have been provided with preliminary information suggesting that two of these may in fact pay for themselves by virtue of bringing them “in house”, in that they are currently contracted out. That remains to be seen and those two items include the request for an additional position in the DPW as well as one in the Assessor’s office. As more details are provided, my position will become more definitive. Currently however, in the absence of this critical data I stand opposed to these specific increases, yet remain open to discussions.
Additionally, as a strong proponent for the School Resource Officer for a variety of reasons, I am open to discussions in terms of this particular position. That said, I will be seeking justification as to why this position cannot be assigned to a current member of the Sturbridge Police Department. Additionally, I would need to know why our current staffing levels are inadequate – if in fact they are – thus preventing this position from being assigned to a current officer. Equally, we should consider why this position should be funded solely by the Town of Sturbridge as opposed to a cost-sharing approach with the entire district and what exactly will the responsibilities and work load this position entail.
As I work directly for you - the residents of this community - I welcome your feedback via email in terms of my overall approach to the budget as ultimately, these items may come to Town Meeting for your review and approval (in your role as the Legislative Branch) if they are placed by the Board as is, or in any variation thereof.