Hartford Budget May Rise to $14M

Hartford — In his proposed budget for next year, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg is recommending restoring funding for the police chief position, a move that would do away with a new post that manages both the police and fire departments.

But his plan also calls for eliminating or trimming the hours of seven other positions in town government, which could cost at least three jobs — or their full time status.

Public Safety Director Steven Locke, who was appointed to the newly created position last year, said in order for the police department to continue to develop and achieve success, someone with police force experience is necessary.

“I was brought in to help rectify some management issues, and those we were able to do,” Locke said in an interview on Thursday. “I think we are at the point where we need some leadership changes and that would best come from someone with expertise in that field.

“I think we went into this with the effort of really trying to make our department better and we are at the point of thinking that we may be able to achieve greater success by using the previous model,” Locke added, saying he hopes to stay employed as Hartford’s fire chief.

Rieseberg, in budget talks a year ago, proposed creating the public safety director job, saying it was used in other parts of New England and would save Hartford about $90,000 annually. The town was operating with an interim police chief at the time.

Under his budget, presented to the Hartford Selectboard on Tuesday night , Rieseberg proposed a $900,000, or 6.7 percent increase, in the general fund budget revenue, to about $14.3 million. The proposed spending plan, which the Selectboard can adjust and voters must approve at Town Meeting, would have a 7.2 cent impact per $100 of valuation. That translates into a potential $180 tax increase on a $250,000 home.

Budget discussions began Thursday evening looking into the allotted funds for departments such as the town clerk, libraries, town manager and reserve funds and capital improvements, to name a few.

Discussions will continue tomorrow and Thursday. All public safety matters will be addressed Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction.

Rieseberg said the need to absorb $300,000 in new health insurance costs and $600,000 in new debt service made budget preparation difficult.

“With this being my 17th budget for Hartford, I believe this budget to be the most difficult one,” Rieseberg wrote in a memo to the Selectboard.

Within the 125-page budget, Rieseberg proposed eliminating six full-time positions and converting one full-time position to part time.

“Four of those positions are empty right now. Three people will be impacted,” Rieseberg said in an interview last week.

Brandon Dyke, the police department’s animal control, parking enforcement and community service officer, said his position could be cut to 25 hours a week, and by doing so, will put added strain on a “short staffed” police department.

“It started six months ago, Steven Locke deducted my salary $1,500; that’s where it started and this is the next thing in line,” Dyke said at Tuesday night’s Selectboard meeting. “I have a family with four kids, how are you going to make surviving in this day today with four kids on 25 hours a week. I ask that you just put these thoughts in your head when you’re making this budget.”

In addition to layoffs, the budget accounts for a 3 percent increase in employee wages, does not use unassigned fund balances to help offset tax rates and accommodates a shrinking grand list.

“I put together the best mix and balanced budget without any new expenses and it still results in an increase of $899,986,” Rieseberg said at Tuesday night’s Selectboard meeting. “In my opinion, you can’t keep doing what you are doing — what you did the year before and the year before that.”

Rieseberg proposed no new capital projects, saying the town is already in over its head with the several projects that are under way, which include the West Hartford Library restoration, the Maxfield athletic field project, the Wendell A. Barwood Arena utility and building upgrades, and the Hartford Municipal Building renovations.

“We are carrying more of a load than any other municipality that I am aware of,” Rieseberg said. “It will be a challenge to do much more with out a significant impact to the tax rate.”

Selectman Alex DeFelice said after briefly looking over the budget he saw a few line items through different sections of the budget that could be cut this year and restored next year. He said just two line items, one in the public safety budget and the other in the Department of Public Works and Highways, could cut nearly $500,000.

“When things are tough and until we get the insurance sorted out, there are areas we can take something out of and not hurt anyone,” DeFelice said.

A common theme was the bond payments as well as the reduction in the grand list, two significant impacts to the tax rate that can’t be changed.

“We are starting out, leaving the gate, with a 6.5 cent increase that we all signed up for,” Selectman F.X. Flinn said, adding the budget the town manager presented “needs a lot of work.” Flinn said he would like to see some of the surplus funds from the prior year’s budget applied to help bring down the projected tax rate.

“I expect that when all is said and done we will put some of that money in and I expect there will be some significant additions and subtractions from what the town manager has presented,” Flinn said, adding he projects the tax rate increase will stay between 7.5 and 8.5 cents.

Both DeFelice and Flinn said they weren’t in favor of going back to the way the police and fire departments were run prior to the switch to a sole leader last year.

“I think that reverting to the old model would be a step backwards,” Flinn said. “I think we should have a regional public safety director.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.