Hartford Settles On Budget

White River Junction — A divided Selectboard voted last night to use money from a rainy day fund to help offset the tax increase needed to fund the proposed 2014 budget.

After nearly an hour of debate and several failed motions, the board voted to spend $275,000 from a reserve account. Officials estimated the money will help keep the property tax increase at an estimated 5 cents.

For a property assessed at $200,000, that means the annual tax bill would go up about $100, to $1,580 per year.

The 5 cent increase is at the upper limit of what board members previously told Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg they would accept.

“I think it’s fine,” Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn said after the meeting. “It’s very much a forward-looking budget.”

Voters will have the chance to agree — or not — at Town Meeting on March 5.

The process of coming to a decision last night was anything but smooth, though — it took seven motions before the board could agree on a total. The reserved fund being tapped has about $2 million. Motions attached to dollar amounts that ranged from $150,000 to $300,000 were explored, three of which failed for lack of a second.

“It wasn’t, as far as I’m concerned, intended to be an auction,” Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said after the meeting, standing in the threshold of a room in the Municipal Building.

Rieseberg, who at Tuesday’s meeting voiced his frustration at the board’s decisions to add various positions to the budget in a tight year, said several times last night that the decisions are the board’s to make, despite his personal views.

“If this were mine to make we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” he said of the budget. “If you choose not to take my advice any further, or wish to use this money for some other special purpose, that’s yours to do.”

After the meeting, Rieseberg, who has worked at his Hartford post for 17 years, said the sheer number of failed motions was both “uncommon” and “unusual,” though he was fine with the value the board landed on.

“I think that’s a perfect appropriation,” he said. “It’s close to a sustainable number.”

Selectmen Alex DeFelice and Sam Romano voted against the motion, which passed 4-2. DeFelice said earlier that he is leaning toward voting against the budget as a whole.

“There’s so many different opinions here that you can’t wrap your mind around anything,” he said shortly after a motion to take $275,000 out of the unassigned fund — the amount that was ultimately approved — was initially voted down, 5-1. “I’ve been here three years and you guys have succeeded in confusing me this year.”

Earlier in the meeting, DeFelice brought to the board two unrelated motions, both of which were voted down.

One was to re-appropriate about $125,000 for a police chief, a position that had been eliminated earlier in the budget process in favor of a cross-departmental “public safety director.”

“I thought I just heard you say that you’re in favor of the public safety director position,” Parker said after DeFelice completed his pitch.

“In theory I am,” DeFelice responded. “But I was only in favor of that because it sounded like, to me, we didn’t have funds to fund the chief of police.”

“I don’t fall prey to the clarion call for a police chief, simply so we have a police chief,” Parker later said, adding that after consideration he was in favor of a public safety director, if just for the next one or two years.

DeFelice’s other motion was to give the West Hartford Library Trustees $16,000 more for their library budget; the trustees, about a week ago, agreed to cede that sum to reimburse the town’s other libraries for helping in their absence. DeFelice’s motion would add an additional $16,000 in the budget for West Hartford.

“When we started this budget session, I was under the assumption that we were in dire straits,” DeFelice said.

“I don’t know what the board’s definition of dire straits is at the moment,” Rieseberg said.

The board voted against that motion 4-2, with its members praising the trustees of the towns’ libraries for working together.

As the meeting drew to a close, a flurry of motions — to take out $250,000, $300,000 and $150,000, respectively — either met negative votes or were never seconded.

For the second time, Flinn moved to pass the $275,000 amount. Selectman Simon Dennis laughed and seconded, and it passed.

“I think we’re functioning in a funny way at this point,” Dennis said. “We’ve got to call it quits.”

Jon Wolper can be reached at jwolper@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.