Budget Goals Require Major Staff Cuts

September 12, 2014


by S. Aaron Shamshoyan

A proposed town-operating budget for 2015 would cut four firefighters and the entire recreation department, along with other positions if approved by selectmen.

Town Manager Keith Hickey presented his proposed budget late last month, telling the board staffing reductions were necessary to meet budget goals they previously set.

Hickey said he was tasked to create a budget with no more than a one-percent tax rate increase and include a three-percent increase for road funding.

The increase, raising the town portion of the tax rate to $7.19 per thousand from $7.12, would add $273,224 to the operating fund, but $138,000 would be put toward roads.

Additional money needed for winter weather operations, rising health costs, and bridge bond payments forced Hickey to propose personnel cuts.

The fire department would lose four firefighters under the proposal, reduce the administrative secretary in the community development department to part time, and disband the recreation department entirely.

If approved, Hickey said residents would notice a change.  He said the reductions, “will reduce the services this community is provided.”

The cuts wouldn’t be the first in recent years, as the board has favored cutting staff annually.

Hickey recounted positions which were eliminated or outsourced over the past few years including outsourcing the IT department, reduction of police prosecutors, funding three resource officers through the school district, reduction in clerks and the retirement of the chief building official.

“We’ve seen an increased workload on the remaining staff people,” Hickey told the board, adding they so far were able to maintain services.

“2015 is a very different scenario,” he said, noting the entire recreation department would be removed.

Hickey said reducing police officers should not be considered as the 62 officers handle a relatively high amount of offenses compared to surrounding towns.

Portsmouth has 61 officers, Derry has 56, and Londonderry has 70, Hickey said, adding each department handles about 1,000 offenses annually, but Salem handles double that.

“I couldn’t justify reducing the police,” he said, noting the department has been reduced in the past.

“You’re now getting into core services that will impact residents of the community.”

Looking at roadwork, Hickey said Salem spends about three-times the amount of other communities annually.  He said that level of spending on roads would require staffing reductions to meet selectmen guidelines for the $4.65 million article.

Selectman Michael Lyons, representative to the Road Stabilization Committee, said the program was necessary to reconstruct neglected roads.

“We have the largest road program in the state,” he said.  “We’re not going to build a road wrong.”

Lyons said the comparison to other towns wasn’t completely foretelling, as pavement condition was not noted.

Hickey said road funds were neglected until the mid-2000s when a new master plan was established; adding previously road reconstruction and maintenance was significantly underfunded.

“We’re starting to sacrifice other services to dig ourselves out of that hole,” Hickeys said.

The proposal would also cut funding for CART services in town, potentially forcing the organization to close.

Hickey said, despite his proposal, he recommended the four firefighters’ positions be funded along with the recreation department at a total cost of $627,265.

“In my mind, those positions in that department are critical,” Hickey said, adding the cost would mean six cents on the tax rate.

He said negotiations with five unions could mean a reduction to the budget, but those numbers wouldn’t be known until January.

Selectmen agreed with Hickey the positions should be added back to the budget, but chose not to take any action that night.

Chairman Pat Hargreaves told board members a motion would not be entertained to reinstate the positions proposed for elimination during the meeting and that selectmen needed to spend time reading over the proposed budget book before making a change.

“I got a funny feeling we’re going to get flooded by CART,” Hargreaves said.

Selectman Everett McBride agreed.  “You’re not going to sell this budget book tonight.”

The board is conducting a comprehensive review of each department before final votes on the budget, which then heads to the budget committee for review.