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Late Changes Shake Up Hartford Budget

Hartford — In a surprising and sudden move last night, the Selectboard finalized its 2013-14 budget proposal by eliminating three new positions in previous months and paring back the amount of money to be taken from a surplus fund to offset a tax increase.

The dramatic reversal, which came in a flurry of split votes late last night, still means residents would see a property tax rate increase of 5 cents per $100 of assessed value if the municipal budget is approved on Town Meeting Day in March. That increase would mean an increase of about $100 on the tax bill of a property assessed at $200,000.

But the turnaround didn’t sit well with some board members.

“Over the course of 10 minutes we went from one extreme to the other,” Selectman Simon Dennis said after the rapid succession of votes. Simon, who originally proposed the energy coordinator position, called the process “crude.”

The money to be taken from the surplus fund was cut nearly in half, from $275,000 to $150,000. That $125,000 difference is about the same amount the board would have taken to fund the proposed positions of assistant town manager, human resources specialist and energy coordinator.

Last night’s votes effectively ended a weeks-long budgeting process that saw the board majority vacillate between an emphasis on low taxes and a desire to pursue new initiatives.

“I think we’ve done a good job in coming up with a budget” in tough economic times, Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said.

Selectman Alex DeFelice, who has been a spending hawk throughout the budget deliberations, proposed the series of changes. DeFelice said he wasn’t trying to kill the positions, only to delay the new positions until the town’s finances aren’t so strained.

“I honestly believe that (during) the budget year 2014 to 2015, we will be faced with putting these items back into the budget,” he said.

The proposal from DeFelice last night that was voted down was a proposal to remove $125,000 from the town’s paving budget, which totals about $875,000, to further defray expenditures. The vote went 3-3 and failed for lack of majority. Selectman Sam Romano did not vote and did not offer an explanation.

Other highlights in the budget include a half-year’s funding the town’s curb-side recycling program and the elimination of the position of police chief in favor of a public safety director to oversee the police and fire departments, which is expected to save as much as $100,000, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg has said.

In March, there will also be two bonds on the warning: One, at just more than $9 million, would go toward revitalizing town and school athletic fields and facilities; the other, at just less than $5 million, would go toward renovating the town offices at the Municipal Building in White River Junction.

After the voting ended last night, Dennis worried that the board had gone from “one extreme to the other,” which he said revealed a weakness in its process, and a lack of patience that board members have with one another.

“Simon, we achieved just what you wanted to a while ago,” Parker said, drawing a disagreement from Dennis. “This is compromise.”

“It’s flopped to the other extreme,” Dennis said.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted,” Parker replied.

Just past 10 p.m., Flinn made a motion to adopt the budget with the changes intact. Other than an abstention from Dennis, the vote was unanimous.

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