Lebanon City Council seeks to avoid staff layoffs

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2020 9:29:31 PM
Modified: 11/23/2020 9:29:11 PM

LEBANON — City councilors say they hope to avoid layoffs and keep Lebanon’s tax rate from rising more than 3% as officials prepare to approve a 2021 budget next month.

Several councilors said Monday that they’re reviewing numbers in City Manager Shaun Mulholland’s $61.5 million spending proposal for cuts that could save at least two jobs on the chopping block. Those include a full-time position within the city’s assessing office and the energy and facilities manager post held by Tad Montgomery since 2018.

Some councilors say they’re zeroing in on capital improvements — which pay for new buildings, vehicles and other infrastructure projects — as the possible focus of cuts.

Others predict Lebanon may have to reallocate funds, either by not filling existing openings or pulling money from other departments to protect the jobs.

“That’s a pretty tall order as you might imagine,” Councilor George Sykes said dur ing a phone interview Monday morning.

Overall, Mulholland is proposing a $61.5 million municipal budget for 2021, a 1.4%, increase over the current year’s spending plan. The operating budget, which funds personnel and city departments, would see a 0.9% increase to $37.1 million.

Sykes, a Democrat who represents Lebanon in the New Hampshire House, said he’s focused on avoiding layoffs and keeping taxes at a minimum ahead of the council’s Dec. 16 budget vote.

He said some savings could be found by putting off some capital improvement projects that aren’t needed in the immediate future.

“I’m reasonably optimistic that some kind of modifications can be made so that some of these goals in part or in whole can be met,” he said.

Lebanon’s proposed capital improvements budget totals $9.9 million and includes $1.7 million for a renovation of the Lebanon Public Library, almost $364,000 for further renovations to City Hall and $20,000 for a study on a future community center.

Prioritizing those projects and cutting “things that we need versus things that we want” will likely be necessary, said Councilor Sue Prentiss.

She said residents are more engaged in the budget process this year than during past cycles, partially because Mulholland’s proposal is projected to increase the city’s portion of property taxes by 3% to $10.27 per $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.

That rate, which doesn’t include school and county property taxes, would amount to a $78 municipal tax increase for a property valued at $250,000.

On top of that, residents are still recovering from new assessments that resulted in an 18% increase in Lebanon’s taxable value this year, Prentiss said.

‘I think that there’s still room to bring the (tax rate increase) below 3% and I think that we can do that without laying anyone off,” Prentiss said, adding she hopes to have a plan together after the Thanksgiving holiday.

However, Mayor Tim McNamara said reducing the amount of new taxes and saving staff is a difficult task during a tight budget year.

Many departments are either seeing cuts or level funding, he said, and the capital improvements budget is down $13 million since 2019. That’s because the city will see its debt payments rise to $10.1 million next year as it works to pay off the roughly $75 million citywide combined sewer overflow projects.

“My fear is that there is not enough residual discretionary funds” to save jobs, McNamara said. “We’ll see but I really doubt there is.”

McNamara said he’d also like to see further cuts to capital improvements but he warned that some projects, such as road repair and building upgrades, could be more costly if neglected.

“There’s going to be some very tough decisions that have to be made and we can’t have our cake and eat it too,” he said. “We can’t keep the tax rate down and do that without making some painful budget adjustments.”

Councilor Clifton Below said he shares some of the same concerns and has sent several questions about the budget to the manager’s office. Still, he’s hopeful that November financial information and cuts elsewhere could at least save the energy and facilities position.

Below, who heads the Lebanon Energy Advisory Committee, has long advocated for the job, which is responsible for finding energy savings and implementing sustainability efforts.

In recent years, Montgomery has led initiatives to turn off some city streetlights and have the remaining ones converted to energy-efficient LEDs, expand the use of solar in Lebanon and bring new car charging stations to the city. Phone messages left for Montgomery were not returned Monday. His salary was set at just under $80,000 last year, according to the budget.

“I think that position has been important. It has helped us make a lot of progress on energy and facilities,” Below said.

Mulholland, the city manager, said he’s working with city councilors to sift through the budget figures and answer questions about his proposal.

A public hearing on the spending plan is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

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

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