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Hartford Board Adds to Budget

Split votes were the norm last night as the Selectboard was divided on multiple budget issues, including the addition of funding for three positions.

Selectmen Sam Romano and Alex DeFelice cast dissenting votes against added spending at several points last night, including $27,000 to add a part-time energy coordinator position and $50,000 for the public works department to replace a retiring worker whose job Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg had planned to keep unfilled.

The Selectboard also agreed to add $65,000 to the police department budget to pay for an additional detective to focus on drug crimes.

Rieseberg has proposed eliminating the police chief position in favor of a “public safety director,” who would oversee both police and fire departments. Such an arrangement would save the town an esitmated $90,000 annually and could be filled by Fire Chief Steve Locke.

The restructuring has met with a backlash from several residents, including Glenn Cutting, the recently retired police chief. Last night, Selectman F.X. Flinn, who in an interview before the meeting said that the police department has been left feeling a bit short-changed, proposed adding $121,000 to the department for a detective and a patrolman.

That motion failed, and the Selectboard compromised with the additional $65,000 for the detective.

Not everyone was pleased with the additional spending.

“I’m going to vote against it,” DeFelice said about the budget as a whole. “I feel it’s a train headed down the tracks and eventually it’s going to crash.”

“Well, enjoy the ride,” Chairman Ken Parker said.

Initially, the budget proposal presented by Rieseberg for the fiscal year that begins July 1 was $13.2 million — a slight decrease from the current year’s budget.

As of the end of last night’s meeting, that total had ballooned to about $13.6 million.

In the course of its deliberations, the Selectboard added $75,000 to the budget to continue curbside recycling until the end of the calendar year. The board also added $106,000 for a human resources and information technology positions that would be shared with the school district, as well as an assistant town manager.

Last night, Rieseberg expressed frustration with the Selectboard’s aim to add more money to the budget.

“If we were under the impression you were willing to spend more money than that, I wouldn’t have reduced someone in the police department or someone in the DPW crew,” Rieseberg said.

Rieseberg has said in past interviews that this budget was one of the hardest to put together in his career because of a 3 percent decline in Hartford’s total property values and an increase in worker’s compensation insurance.

Many of last night’s additions were suggested by Flinn, who had a list of additions and changes he wanted to make to the budget, including bonding the money for the West Hartford library, which was decimated during Tropical Storm Irene.

Last year at Town Meeting, voters approved a $500,000 bond for the library. After Town Meeting, Rieseberg suggested that instead of bonding, the town could tap money from its unassigned reserve fund, which would save an estimated $125,000 in interest payments.

The board ultimately voted last year to pay for the library through the unassigned reserve fund, but last night Flinn suggested reversing that decision.

His reasoning was that if the town bonded for the West Hartford library, then it could use $325,000 from the unassigned reserve fund to help offset the tax rate.

Rieseberg was opposed.

“I do think the use of the fund balance to offset a budget that is increasing is dangerous,” Rieseberg said. “I cannot recommend more highly against it.”

Parker asked the board members if they wanted to “chew on it.”

“I don’t know what there is to chew,” DeFelice said. “It’s obvious that four of us are ready to vote on this proposal, so let’s get on with it.”

The board promptly voted 4-2, again with DeFelice and Romano opposed, to reverse itself on the library and approved the bond.

As the clock turned 10 p.m., the board decided to postpone its discussion about how much money to take out of the unassigned reserve fund until the next meeting.

The Selectboard is scheduled to meet again at 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Municipal Building. The board plans on talking about the potential impact of the tax levy and the removal of money from the unassigned reserve fund.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.