We have had a chance to look at the first pass of the Operating Budget, the Default Budget and Selectmen Sponsored Warrant Articles and are alarmed at the blatant insensitivity to the taxpayer and power grab on the part of the Selectmen to partially remove the voters from the process of approving spending of their tax dollars. Not only did the Selectmen approve all of the Department Heads needs and wants, they actually added to the bottom line requested by the Town Manager.
There is a new paradigm these days, instead of taking a chance that a vote may not pass, the item winds up being funded by the Unassigned Fund Balance (UFB) with the misleading Fiscal Note of “No Tax Impact. 2018 was the first time in many years that no portion of the UFB was used to offset tax increases, which would have benefited all taxpayers. We have a large surplus in the UFB, which is caused by padded budgets and warrant articles facilitating additions to the UFB. Selectmen Waddell even recently stated that the Finance Director was working on increasing the UFB. It’s a good idea to have a strong UFB but increasing it via padding and reducing it by withdrawals for pet projects is essentially a shell game and an end run around the voters. The practice of withdrawing funds from the UFB for warrant articles can make sense for high priority, mission critical projects, but not for “ nice to do” projects advocated by special interests.
The UFB is a farce, first there is a proposal to put $200K into a capital reserve fund for the Fire Department for “turn-out" gear, a necessity, then draw down $24K a year for annual replacement. Why it has reached this point of extremis is incomprehensible and reflects extremely poor planning. We advocate letting the voters decide and not involve a ploy using the UFB the taxpayers understand the needs of the Fire Department and should be allowed to express themselves by voting.
Other UFB requests include Document conversion at $50K, purchasing the eye sore former gas station at Lafayette and Winnacunnet Roads for $525K, $120K for IT upgrades, which were also approved last year. The list goes on and totals $921K including the gas station. Let the voters decide without the “No Tax Impact" shell game. The gas station purchase is not necessary for Town business and should be funded privately.
2019’s proposed budget of $28.2 million is $1.35 million over 2018, which the voters turned down in favor of the Default Budget. Notable increases this year include Legal up 23%, Cemeteries up 81%, Fire up 6% plus a warrant article to add four Firefighters, DPW solid waste collection and disposal up 24% and 16% respectively and debt service up 5.5% without recently approved bonds. There are limited increases in health insurance and retirement contributions. By comparison the 2018 budget saw 1.5% increase and the 2017 budget less than 1% increase so what is going on?
The 2019 Default budget is $27.6 million or a 2.8% increase over 2018. 56% of the increases in the 2019 budget have found their way to the Default budget. There are items that declined or are eliminated in the 2019 proposed budget but are left in the Default budget, which makes no sense. The unbudgeted non-union wage increases, which the voters did not approve, are included in the Default budget. This demonstrates that the Selectmen are circumventing the voters. The most egregious of the Default budget items is the $124,000 for the second year of the lease for the two trash trucks, which barely passed in 2018 and requires the voters approve the expenditure each year for years 2-5, yet it's in the Default budget that is only approved by the Selectmen. This appears to be a clear violation of the DRA rules and procedures. The BOS are supporting a chimera and are preparing and incorrect and illegal default budget. We anticipate that the Budget Committee will review the default budget with a fine toothed comb.
For those who really don’t care or bother to turn out to vote here is what is going to happen. Your 2018 taxes are about $7,000 on the average. If the tax increases are about 2% per year for the next five years you will be paying $7,666, which isn’t too terrible. However, if the annual increases are 5%, which is where the Selectmen are proposing to take us, expect your taxes to rise from $7,000 to $8,860 five years down the road. To us this is a wake-up call.
We previously warned the BOS and the public about the Cable TV fund having too much money in it and it would burn a hole in the pockets of the Cable TV committee as it has way too much revenue being collected on the backs of Comcast cable TV subscribers. So with the oversight of a part-time employee who has already come and gone, $425K has been spent through October of this year compared with $105,000 for all of last year and frankly, there has been little improvement in the reception quality. What a misuse of funds. Time to give it back to the Cable TV ratepayers, as was discussed before.
Finally, do we really need four more Firefighters? It is hard to justify this increase in manning when the newer dwellings driving the expansion are much safer and our ambulance service response appears to excellent. This kind of spending appears to be unnecessary.
It is so frustrating to watch this Board propose spending in such an unrestrained manner. Apparently, the great year that the American economy has been having must be extraordinary in Hampton to propose all of these wish list items. There still is silence on wastewater treatment plant fees for commercial users, trash collection fees for businesses receiving free trash services as often as seven days a week and of course the cable tv charges.
We will endeavor to keep informing the public on these issues with the hope that they will get concerned enough to get out and vote. In the meantime we ask the BOS to take a deep breath and go back to work on cutting this budget and prepare and honest default budget.