Reviews of department budgets underway for city council

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — Reviews of department budgets are underway as the city council struggles with a proposed fiscal 2018 budget that would result in a staggering $4.59 increase in the property tax rate.

The council has pledged to try and avoid any tax increase.

In a brief overview Monday, City Manager James Wheeler said the proposed city general fund budget is $15.1 million, up $490,593 or 3.4 percent.

Wheeler cited two factors for contributing to much of the increase. He said the budget funds 20 full-time firefighters as required under the two-year SAFER grant the city received. The grant runs out in October and the council will have to decide whether it wants to go back to the 18-firefighter force it had before the grant. There is no requirement that the city maintain the 20-person staffing level once the grant expires.

City Councilor Diana Nelson asked if a fire department staffing task force had come to any conclusions about staffing.

Wheeler said it did not find an alternative way to staff the department other than the current four-person shifts with two firefighters used to fill in for firefighters out on vacation or sick leave.

The other large increase is the $210,000 bond payment for the Route 16 project.

Adding in capital improvements and the school general fund budget, Wheeler said the city’s total general fund budget is $33.6 million, up $848,47,860.

He said that comes to a $4.57 tax increase, even using $500,000 from the undesignated fund balance to reduce taxes and using the $190,000 saved by not putting in a fuel distribution system for city vehicles.

“Not an easy budget this year,” Wheeler noted.

Considering budget cuts

A dollar on the tax rate equals $400,000, meaning the council has to cut expenditures or increase revenues by about $1.8 million to avoid any tax increase.

Last week, the council asked the school board to come up with a total of $900,000 in cuts or fiscal 2017 surplus funds.

This week, the council asked Wheeler to identify $100,000 of savings in the general government budget, which covers the city’s administration, city hall, personnel benefits, and the IT budgets. The $3.9 million budget was up by $12,905.

Mayor Paul Grenier first asked to see $50,000 in cuts for the council to consider but Councilor Roland Theberge raised the amount to $100,000. Wheeler said that would probably requiring eliminating a position.

Airport Manager Eric Kaminsky said his budget request of $171,946 is about the same as the current budget.

Kaminsky informed the council he will be stepping down in the spring. He said he is proud of what has been accomplished at the airport. The plan is to hire a replacement by the end of the current fiscal year.

Grenier said the Balsams Resort project is moving ahead and he would like to have the resort management team work with the airport.

Industrial development

Berlin Community Development Director Pamela Laflamme presented the Berlin Industrial Development and Park Authority budget. She noted there is no change in Berlin Industrial Development & Park Authority’s budget, which is self-supporting.

Laflamme said the authority is fiscally very conservative and will be realizing $660,000 once the sale of land to North Country Growers is finalized.

Grenier asked if the board has discussed constructing a spec building now that the city does not own any buildings or land in the industrial park.

Laflamme said the authority has discussed it but there are no plans at the moment to do so.

Council members differed on the concept, with some suggesting it would be nice to have a building to show potential companies while others felt it was better to wait and build specifically for a company that wanted to move or expand here.

Wheeler suggested a good compromise might be to have a site identified and plans prepared for several different sized buildings that the city could put up quickly if there was a need.

In other business:

• The council gave its support to a request from Debra Sheehan and Angela Martin Giroux to seek grant funding to start a Youth Farm Outreach Program. Aimed at kids aged 8-12, the program would promote gardening and teach the kids to be entrepreneurs and grow produce for local markets. The city would serve as fiscal agent and Giroux would manage the grants in her capacity as the city’s health and welfare director.

• Grenier reported two Berlin wastewater treatment projects are on the state Department of Environmental Service’s draft wastewater state aid grant list. The city hired consultant Bill Hounsell to help get the state to pick up its share of the projects. The money totals over $3 million to assist the city in paying for the upgrade of the wastewater treatment and assist with the inflow and infiltration work.

Grenier noted the results were well worth the approximately $5,000 fee.