Lanesborough Digs Into Police, Fire, Highway Budgets

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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The Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee met with department heads for more than three hours Tuesday night to discuss the budget.

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The town department heads of four of the most expensive budget sectors justified their proposed increases Monday night.

Police, Fire, Highway and Mount Greylock Regional High School officials met with the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. The goal is to get a handle on those high-cost sectors as the fiscal 2015 budget is crafted.

Police and highways are both proposing about a $10,000 increase while the Fire Department is looking for modest $900. Those numbers do not include salary raises because negotiations for all departments are still ongoing, according to Town Administrator Paul Sieloff.

Mount Greylock is expected to see a 2.78 percent increase, which translates to an assessment increase of $72,081. The town is being asked to pay $2,623,945 for the school this upcoming year.

Highway Superintendent William Decelles said the biggest increase in his department is $3,000 to contract a cleaning service for water infiltration tanks on Profile and National streets. The town had been cleaning the tanks but they have since been upgraded to use gas.

"Now they have gas and confined space. We have to hire someone to do it. We can't put our guys in there," Decelles said.

Another increase is the additional line for ambulance diesel fuel. Previously, the ambulances got gas from the Highway Department and wrote a check to the town for it. That money went to the town's general fund instead of going back to the department, Decelles said.

Finance Committee members suggested that eventually the town moves to a revolving account for that or creates an "all-town fuel" account.

The Board of Selectmen also questioned a $10,000 allocation for equipment rental when in the past not all of that allotment has been used. Decelles said the rental is mostly for street sweepers and a catch basin cleaner, with the balance serving as more of a reserve in case the town needs to rent a bulldozer.

Decelles said the budget is a "juggling" act throughout the year and some of his lines are underfunded, so if not all of it is allocated in a given year, there are other uses for it. Additionally, he said oftentimes the street sweeper bills don't come in until after the end of the fiscal year, adding to the next budget's burden.

"The bottom line, I am always within the bottom line," Decelles said.

Decelles is also receiving a boost as well for additional responsibilities. Sieloff said he is proposing a $2,000 stipend for Decelles to put him in charge of maintenance on all town buildings, which was previously not in his job description.

"Right now, I'm trying to do a lot of these things but it is beyond my scope of experience," Sieloff said. "It totally shifts everything over to Bill and the department to be building managers."

Also regarding highways, Sieloff said the snow and ice removal line is proposed to be increased by $10,000, bringing the total to $100,000. An additional $200 is being allocated for mowing; the town hires a seasonal employee to mow all cemeteries, parks and the school.

The Police Department is also expected to receive a $10,000 increase, the largest being for new bullet-proof vests.

Police Chief Mark Bashara said he received a grant to replace all of the vests for the 12 officers. The grant calls for the federal government to pay one-third, the state another third and then the town the balance.

"We'll basically get all new vests for $2,500," Bashara said, adding that it has been five years since they have been replaced.

Selectman Robert Ericson said asked if there could be a reduction in the officer clothing allowance. By contract, each full-time officer receives $1,000 for uniforms and each part-time officer receives $500. Bashara said the $1,100 needs to be there just in case all of them use their allotment.

"At the end of the day, I have little control over 90 percent of these items," Bashara said, adding that the Selectmen can cut it but if he can't reach his contractual obligations, the onus is on them.

An $880 gym incentive built into the contracts also came into question, because not all officers used them. Bashara says if those figures come in low, the money either goes back to the general fund or offsets a line the department is over.

Sieloff added that the Police Department is also penned in for $20,000 from the capital budget and $20,000 from the Baker Hill Road District to buy a new cruiser.

While the Fire Department is expected to see only a $900 increase, it is getting $100,000 set aside for a new truck.

According to Fire Chief Charlie Durfee, there is a $1,100 increase in his maintenance line attributing for the rise.

"Basically, that's all vehicle maintenance because every year I am way over," he said.

Sieloff said the town is also putting aside $100,000 this year toward a new fire engine. The town previously estimated that to cost $500,000 and Sieloff says he is hoping to find grants to help with the cost. If grants are not awarded this year, the town may set another $100,000 aside next year and bond the remaining amount.

Mount Greylock's assessment is still higher than town officials had hoped. Sieloff initially penned in a 1.5 percent increase and school officials came in with about a 4 percent increase. The town told the School Committee that 4 percent was not going to happen but 2.5 percent was more tolerable.

The Mount Greylock School Committee later cut all after-school buses and the Alpine skiing program and switched a staff position to be funded with a grant.

"We got it down to a 2.78 increase, which was as close as we could get to the 2.5 percent talked about at that meeting," School Committee member David Langston said. "The School Committee has, for the last few years, been really concerned with the costs to the town. ... We have been attentive and sympathetic toward Lanesborough's concerns."

The cutting the after-school buses posed some issues with the Finance Committee, which discussed possible ways to provide transportation.

"There were a lot of cuts that were made that were painful," Ericson, who also sits on the Mount Greylock School Committee, said.

He added that the reserves have been depleted so any unexpected expenditures would require the school to return to the town. Nonetheless, the Board of Selectmen will now need to find about $30,000 in reductions from within its operations to keep a balanced budget.

Finance Committee member Ronald Tinkham question the tuition rates for Hancock, New Ashford and Richmond, which had become a sticking point because those towns received lower tuition while not sharing in the capital costs.

Langston said the school has reached an agreement to raise the tuition over a three-year period, alleviating those concerns. However, Hancock's town meeting may decide to tuition its students to New Lebanon (N.Y.).

But some Selectmen and some Finance Committee members expressed frustration with the school's continually rising budget. The town is finding it harder to be "fair" to other departments because the school is taking up much of the budget.

Finance Committee member Gregory Wolf said he doesn't want to tell police officers that they don't get a raise while a guidance counselor is.

"We have to be fair," he said.

Others called for more drastic measures, such as a reduction in teachers.

"The budgets have been going up every year and the number of kids has been going down every year. But, the number of teachers has stayed the same every year," Ericson said.

Finance Committee member Al Terranova suggested having an incentive to have teachers retire and then lowering the staff level through attrition.

Sieloff is expected to propose some changes to the budget next month, after which the two boards will review and finalize the numbers.

Tags: Finance Committee,   fiscal 2015,   MGRHS,   police cruiser,   town budget,   

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