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Claremont OKs 18-Month Budget

Claremont — After a few failed votes, the City Council last night voted 8-1 to approve a $22.75 million budget for the 18-month period from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2014.

The budget includes a $7.7 million six-month transitional budget that will take the city through the first six months of 2013, and a $15 million budget for the next 12 months, when the city switches its fiscal year.

The 12-month budget is up $500,000 from the 12 months ending Dec. 31.

According to Finance Director Mary Walter, the approved budget would increase the city portion of the tax rate 4.6 percent, or 60 cents, to $13.45 per $1,000 of assessed property value and add about $90 annually in property taxes on a home assessed at $150,000.

The new rate would be set officially by the state next October and would apply retroactively to the first quarterly bill due July 1.

The council didn’t make any changes last night to the transitional budget, but members voted to add about $165,000 to the $14.86 million budget proposed by City Manager Guy Santagate. The increase means a full-time position at the library will be retained and another $100,000 will be added to the public works budget for road paving.

When the council tentatively approved the budget on Nov. 17, it had added $200,000 to the paving line item, but it voted 7-2 last night to cut that amount in half. There is $300,000 remaining from a 2011 bond for road paving that will be used next year to go with the $100,000.

As in past years, councilors tried to balance demands to maintain city services and improve the infrastructure with sensitivity to homeowners struggling to make ends meet.

“I’m not in favor of (adding) $200,000 to the paving budget,” said Councilor Nick Koloski. “You have to draw the line somewhere.”

Koloski, an entrepreneur, said out-of-town businesspeople tell him the tax rate, not the infrastructure, is the number one impediment to economic development in the city.

Mayor Jim Neilsen said if the city does not allocate money in the budget for the paving of roads each year, then after several years, a bond would be required to finance repairs — and that means interest payments.

“I don’t want to pay anymore interest on debt,” Neilsen said.

Councilor Tom Burnham made an impassioned plea for a level-funded budget that would have cut $500,000.

“There are a lot of people who can’t afford more on the tax rate,” said Burnham. “It is time to make a statement that we are going to run it tight.”

Burnham put blame for the city’s fiscal challenges squarely on the state, which has “downshifted” costs to the municipal level. “They are too lazy to go find revenues,” he said

His proposal, which included having Santagate identify the spending cuts, found no support among council members. Councilor Chris Irish said level-funding the budget and tax rate was done for years and city services suffered a result.

“We are paying the price for it. You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” said Irish, who later pointed out that while the city may have the highest property tax rate in the state, it does not have the highest tax burden.

Councilor Keith Raymond agreed that slashing the budget was the wrong approach.

“I don’t like to see taxes go up, but we have to move the city forward,” he said.

The discussion also touched on the welfare budget, which Councilor Vic Bergeron recommended be cut as part of a $170,000 reduction to the budget. That amendment failed 7-2.

Bergeron, who cast the lone vote against the final budget approval, said the city needs to address its burgeoning welfare budget.

“This community is heading in the wrong direction,” Bergeron said. “We are becoming the social services center of the area. We can’t afford to double our welfare budget in four years.”

Some pointed out that welfare is governed by state and federal laws and the city cannot deny assistance if someone qualifies.

A few resident addressed the budget, including Brian Small, who said not many can afford to pay more taxes.

“I want to hear from the council how they feel residents can afford the tax increase,” said Small. “That is just as big an issue on what you guys feel the city needs.”

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