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Claremont To Rehire At Library

Councilors Reinstate Position That Was Cut

Claremont — The City Council tentatively approved a budget for the library last night that reinstates a full-time position that had been cut to fund a position in the city’s dispatch center.

The council also tentatively approved budgets for police, assessing, welfare and communications and will continue its budget review in an all-day session beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday.

City Manager Guy Santagate and Finance Director Mary Walter gave the council a six-month transitional budget for Jan. 1 to June 30 followed by a 12-month, $14.86-million budget beginning July 1, which will mark the switch in the city’s fiscal year.

The full-year budget carries an estimated tax rate increase of 39 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $58.50 more in annual taxes on a home assessed at $150,000.

During its budget review, the council is approving combined departmental budget totals that cover both the transitional budget of $7.72 million, which carries no tax rate increases, and the full-year budget.

Councilors, except for Tom Burnham, were not in favor of seeing the library go from four to three positions beginning July 1.

“This is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” said Councilor Chris Irish about the proposal to use the projected savings in the library budget to hire another dispatcher because of increased call volume. “This puts someone on the street to take someone off the street. I don’t like that.”

Mayor Jim Neilsen had similar views and said he would support retaining the position — even if it meant higher taxes.

“I’m not interested in losing a person,” Neilsen said.

The council voted 8-1 for a combined 18-month library budget of $701,496, about $66,000 more than proposed by Santagate’s office. Councilor Roger Formidoni said the additional expense would add $12 in annual taxes to a $150,000 property.

Santagate and Walter previewed the budget and painted a less than rosy picture for the city as it struggles in a weak economy to maintain core services and infrastructure needs while keeping any tax rate increase within 3 percent or less. Walter said health insurance and retirement costs are the “main drivers” in the $400,000 increase in the proposed 12-month budget.

Walter said benefit costs are rising rapidly for all employees in the police and fire departments.

“It won’t be long before benefits will equal or exceed our wages for fire and police,” Walter said.

The higher benefits costs have come despite three rounds of layoffs the last 10 years.

Santagate, who supported a suggestion from Councilor Kyle Messier that the newly elected state legislators meet with the council, said the city would just have to take on the problems.

“It will take some painful decisions,” Santagate said. “We’ll do the best we can but it won’t be easy.”

At the start of the budget review, councilor Vic Bergeron advised his colleagues to proceed carefully with so much uncertainty ahead.

“We have no idea what is coming down the road from the state and federal governments,” Bergeron said. “It (the budget) may come down to what is needed, not what is wanted.”

Police Chief Alex Scott said it is becoming increasingly difficult for his department to function effectively with more demands on its staff. The department lost four officers this year — two to Plainfield, one to Newport and one to the state police — and will lose one more when Capt. Colby Casey retires at the end of the year. Two new officers have been hired but will be at the police training academy beginning in January.

Scott said wages are a big reason why keeping officers is difficult. None of the city’s union employees have had raises since 2009 and while negotiations with the city continue, an agreement anytime soon seems unlikely.

Scott also said call volume with five full-time dispatchers in 1992 was 18,000 and today, mostly because of cell phones, it is up to 24,000 with the same number of dispatchers.

“We are stagnant and if we stay stagnant we will be going backward. I want to move forward,” said the chief, who played a few 911 calls to demonstrate to the council how tough it is to handle an emergency, whether it is fire or robbery.

Scott wanted money in his 12-month police budget that would provide money for a pay raise, if a contract agreement is reached, but the city manager cut that from his proposal.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com.