LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — Town Manager Paul Sieloff is proposing a town budget that would raise the tax rate by 1.5 percent.
Sieloff is proposing two major additions — two emergency medical technicians to work in the Highway Department and doubling the amount of money going toward road projects. The town manager says the town will particularly benefit this year with no increase in health insurance. The town is part of the Berkshire Health Group, which voted last week to keep premiums the same.
"They decided to make everything zero this year," Sieloff said.
And the timing for such a decision is perfect for Lanesborough, which will be transitioning its health insurance cost for school employees to the new regional school district. In the budget, residents will notice a significant decrease in the town's health insurance line. But, concurrently, the school district's budget will see an equal increase. Sieloff says the decision to keep premiums the same will help make that transition easier — though the actual figures have not been settled at this moment.
The budget isn't completed just yet. But the Finance Committee started its review of the largest departments on Monday — Police, Fire, and the Highway departments. The Highway Department's largest increase will be for infrastructure. For years, the town had spent only its $230,000 allotment of Chapter 90 state funds. Each year, Sieloff has been ramping it up. Coupled with a report on road conditions performed by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Sieloff hopes to get all of the roads up to a certain level.
"This is money that supplements Chapter 90. We only get about $230,000 per year, which only allows us to do two or three roads a year," Sieloff said.
Currently, the town is up to $75,000 in the infrastructure line and Sieloff wants to bump that up to $150,000 for the coming year. Eventually, he'd like that budget line to equal the Chapter 90 allocation.
Depending on how the budget shakes out, that number might get scaled back to $100,000 to hit his target tax rate increase.
The second large increase is for two EMTs. Ambulance services in rural areas have been struggling recently and Lanesborough's volunteer service is no different. There are few volunteers available during the day to handle the calls and at times, residents have to wait extended periods of times for an out of town ambulance to arrive.
Sieloff first sought to find somebody working in the Highway Department currently to become a trained EMT. That would allow that worker to leave the Highway Department job and handle a call. The volume of calls during the day in the past hasn't justified paying for full-time EMTs.
So the hybrid idea proposed by Sieloff is to hire EMTs and have them work with the Highway Department. Sieloff believes there is plenty of work to be done in town and cutting costs for seasonal labor, mowing, and custodial work coupled with an increase in returns from ambulance insurance claims will help offset the price somewhat of bringing in the two new workers.
"We're just trying to get them to wear as many hats as possible to fill the position," Selectman Henry Sayers said.
The move is expected to cause a $70,000 increase to the budget, not including benefits. Sieloff presented the proposal as an investment in public safety, rather than solely a focus on the bolstering the Highway Department staff.
"The goal is to protect people in Lanesborough. We have tried everything possible to get a manned ambulance," Sieloff said. "Local governments are preferring not to deal with the finances of this issue but it is a safety issue."
The Finance Committee understands the issues with the ambulance but said Highway Superintendent William Decelles hadn't asked for additional staffing in the past. Members questioned why the EMTs would work for the Highway Department instead of another department.
"I have not heard in the past from Bill in the Highway Department that we are shorthanded," Finance Committee member Stephen Wentworth said.
Wentworth said the new hires would be additional workers and not replacing retiring Highway Department workers. For him, it sounded like a permanent increase in staffing.
Sieloff said there will be a few retirements in three to seven years and, at that time, the town could decide not to fill those highway positions. And Sieloff said he had considered hiring at least one new staffer for the department in the past.
But to run an ambulance, the town needs two EMTs available. So, now Sieloff is proposing two and is confident there is plenty of work to keep them occupied.
"The idea was to use their downtime when they aren't running the ambulance," DeCelles said.
Sieloff said the additional workers may impact insurance and the budget for uniforms as well. Further, there will also have to be a consideration about vehicles. Sieloff said right now there is one extra vehicle available in the department and the town is due to replace one of those in the capital budget. He is considering keeping the vehicle that is supposed to be replaced instead of trading it in to ensure there are vehicles for each worker.
"We're not necessarily sending seven people our with seven vehicles every time," Sieloff said.
Sieloff said the two positions equate to about $150,000 worth of new proposals out of an $11 million budget. He said he told department heads to come in with level services and not to come forward with a new project unless there were grant funds associated with it.
Meanwhile, the Fire Department is looking at about a $19,000 increase to its budget. Fire Chief Charlie Durfee said a few items — hydrant service fees, fire inspector expenses, and fire inspector's salary — were added to his budget when it was previously in other areas of the town's spending plan. That accounts for the majority of the increases. The other increases are mostly for vehicle maintenance, equipment repair, and an increase in the chief's salary.
Durfee said the increase in vehicle and equipment maintenance — to the tune of $5,000 — reflects the increases in costs. He said the cost of repair work and the parts have been going up. He said a switch broke on the newest fire truck and it cost thousands to repair. A blown tire could cost upward of $1,200 bucks, he said.
"Everything is through the roof. That's the problem and it is not going down," Durfee said.
Sayers, however, took issue with the $3,000 increase in the chief's salary. That was up from $5,000 last year and Sayers feels that level of a salary increase at once is too much.
Durfee said he is trying to bring that salary in line with similar departments. He said towns like Monterey, Adams, and New Marlborough all pay the chief in the $15,000 range and his jump to $8,000 is intended to help level the playing field.
"I'm just trying to bringing it up so we are in the same ballpark they are," Durfee said.
In the Police Department, the budget is proposed to increase by about $8,000 — nearly all of which is attributed to vehicle maintenance.
"We needed to up the cruiser maintenance, equipment maintenance, and firearm, ammo and medical supplies," Police Chief Tim Sorrell said.
Cruiser maintenance is seeing a $3,000 increase and Sorrell said that is because the fleet is aging. The department has one cruiser with 12,000 miles but the rest are getting older.
The Finance Committee voiced concern with the overtime number. Sorrell has spent more than half the overtime budget for this year. He said the department had a "perfect storm" of issues in the last few years that led to increases in that number.
The department is currently one officer short of its staffing total. And each of the last few years, Sorrell said an officer had gotten hurt and had to be off duty. While there are more part-timers, Sorrell said he's run into an issue with the 520-hour rule, which would require the part-timer to receive retirement and pension payouts if they eclipse that many hours.
"I've got the shifts to fill and I've got the part-timers, but then I am limited by the shifts to fill," Sorrell said.
Shifts weren't filled at times because of lack of manpower. Sorrell hopes that overtime number will come down in the upcoming year.
The department is also looking to increase the budget for ambulance work. The department currently has one EMT and in the town's effort to increase ambulance coverage, the town is agreeing to provide the training for another officer to be certified and a current officer to be recertified.
That would allow for an officer to drive the ambulance in emergency situations — providing yet another chance to increase response time in critical situations.
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