Lebanon City Council approves annual budget with 2.4% tax increase

By TIM CAMERATO

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 12-17-2020 9:33 PM

LEBANON — The City Council approved a $61.1 million budget for the coming year that preserves the energy and facilities manager position championed by sustainability advocates that had been in danger of being eliminated.

The spending plan will come as a disappointment to those calling for sweeping changes to how Lebanon allocates its tax dollars.

Groups proposing that the city to either drastically curtail police spending or cut taxes were equally rebuffed during a roughly 4½-hour meeting Wednesday night.

About two dozen speakers argued for their priorities to make it into the 2021 budget, from calls to maintain funds for an upcoming library renovation to lamentations that property taxes are pushing residents to look for homes elsewhere.

As comments in the virtual meeting’s chatroom grew vitriolic, the competing and often divergent interests led councilors to conclude that they could not please everyone.

“It’s going to be extremely difficult to make almost anybody happy because so many people are involved on opposite sides of so many items of the budget,” Councilor Jim Winny said. “That said, I’m happy to be hearing from people.”

The City Council worked until close to midnight to craft a $34.5 million operating budget for 2021 that includes the energy and facilities manager position held by Tad Montgomery.

The operating budget — which doesn’t include debt payments or the sewer and water fund —  amounts to a $2.3 million decrease from the 2020 spending plan.

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Still, it is expected to increase the city’s portion of property taxes by about 2.4%, or an additional $60 for a home valued at $250,000.

Montgomery’s job, which comes with a roughly $80,000-a-year salary, was included in the full-time layoffs planned by City Manager Shaun Mulholland to reduce spending.

The other positions — one in the assessing department and a public works post — will be eliminated.

City Councilor Sue Prentiss told colleagues that Montgomery’s work is critical to Lebanon’s commitment to combating climate change.

In his two years at the city, Montgomery has spearheaded efforts to turn off some city streetlights and have the remaining ones converted to energy-efficient LEDs, expand the use of solar panels on Lebanon’s municipal facilities, and attract new electric vehicle charging stations.

Councilors were convinced to retain the energy position, but consensus was more difficult to find on other spending.

A plan crafted by Assistant Mayor Clifton Below included increasing revenue projections above the “conservative” estimates made in Mulholland’s proposal.

That prompted the city manager to warn that altering the revenue figures, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, is “very risky” and could lead to shortfalls down the road. But Below and supporters countered that his calculations still kept projections below those in recent years and were well within a reasonable range.

Seven councilors supported the Below plan, while Mayor Tim McNamara and Councilor Bruce Bronner voted against, citing their concerns with the revenue numbers.

The council also was split on a motion put forward by Councilor George Sykes to do away with Lebanon’s school resource officer, a $120,000 expense that is shared equally between the school district and city.

Sykes, a Democrat who also represents Lebanon in the state House, said he doesn’t believe there should be an armed police officer who patrols the schools and cited opposition to the position from Lebanon’s teachers union and students.

Instead, he said, the officer currently in the role should move to a patrol spot, allowing the city to forgo filling an open position.

Mulholland said the city needs to maintain its current policing numbers to comply with a November 2017 federal grant that allowed Lebanon to hire two additional officers. If the police department reduced its numbers, the city could be on the hook for $275,000, he said.

Other councilors said more input from the school district is needed before they would support eliminating the resource officer.

School Board members recently discussed whether they should do away with the position and use the money to hire a social worker.

“We need to have communication with the School Board. We need to jointly make this decision,” Prentiss said.

Doing away with the school resource officer is part of a proposal put forward by the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group of activists that again called on the City Council to take steps to halve the city’s $6.3 million police budget by 2022.

DSA members argue those funds should then be used to increase the $500,000 human services budget and invest in social service programs.

Rory Gawler, a city resident and member of the DSA, said the city’s budget prioritizes policing rather than library renovations, reopening the Lebanon Veterans Memorial Pool or existing jobs.

Councilors also heard from a group calling itself Citizens for Sustainable Taxes, which argued that the city should work toward a 20% reduction in the municipal tax rate over the next five years.

To achieve that, members argued that Lebanon should lay off two more employees, level-fund all departments and eliminate more than $9 million in infrastructure projects slated for next year.

“If taxes are not reduced to a reasonable level, owners will be forced to leave. Is that a desirable and sustainable outcome?” the group’s leaders — Ramzi Hraibi, Al Patterson and Dan Nash — wrote in a letter that was read aloud Wednesday night.

Neither group — the DSA and Citizens for Sustainable Taxes — got what they wanted.

Councilors said they were reluctant to defund the police department, largely because of Lebanon’s status as a regional commercial and transportation hub. Meanwhile, they said, reducing taxes to the extent proposed would necessitate sharp reductions in spending that could cripple services.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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