These were prominent among the challenges addressed by municipal department heads during a weekend “retreat,” co-hosted by the Select Board and the Finance Committee.
Select Board Chair Margot Fleischman called the virtual event “a conversation…. giving us a less-formal-than-usual opportunity to talk about subjects as we prepare for the budget season.”
One of the most dramatic forecasts was provided by Director of Public Works David Manugian, in answer to a question from Fleischman about the costs of refuse disposal and recycling.
“This is a great example of the challenges we are facing,” Manugian said. He is budgeting for a 4 percent increase for recycling and 6.5 percent for refuse collection and disposal. “We could be 5-10 percent easily in the future,” he said. “We see other towns where this is the situation.”
Manugian continued, “We’re trying to look at different ways to mitigate” the rising costs, and “diversion at the curb is an important part. Any time we can divert from the solid-waste stream helps with some of our costs.” He cited the town’s cooperative collection arrangement for recycling food waste with Black Earth composting.
In answer to a question from Elizabeth McClung of the Finance Committee, Manugian said recyclables comprise about one-third of the total disposables, and “that number hasn’t changed significantly in a decade.” He added that it is “extremely rare” when recyclables are rejected because of mixed trash content.
Finance Committee member David Powell asked public safety department heads about staffing issues. “It’s really challenging,” said Police Chief Robert Bongiorno, emphasizing that it’s “not unique to Bedford.”
“I think it’s the world of policing,” Bongiorno surmised. “We have seen historically low numbers of candidates wanting to take the civil service exam.” He said a usual pool of 35,000 candidates this year totals about 6,000.
“We have had retirements which contribute to some increases in overtime,” along with some absences due to recovery from Covid-19, he continued. “Our staff has really stepped up and provided a service to the community.”
Fire Chief David Grunes said his department needs to hire four paramedics, and is awaiting an updated state civil service list of candidates, expected in early March. He responded to another Powell question by acknowledging that the aging fire station is a factor when trying to hire. “There is a finite number of paramedics,” Grunes said, and all Massachusetts departments with openings are competing for them. “The firehouse presents challenges.”
Facilities Director Taissir Alani had mixed reports. In answer to a question from Steve Carluccio, Finance Committee chair, Alani said his budget is weathering price increases now and expecting more next year.
One unspecified service vendor, he said, is charging $410 per hour, with a minimum of four hours per trip. In response, “We are having our staff do more troubleshooting with our engineering background and expertise, trying to stay on top without compromising safety.” Rising prices on materials are offset by maintaining an inventory from projects, he added.
Asked about energy costs, Alani said that although there is more consumption because of increased ventilation efforts, rates are fixed for at least another two years. “We had an option year that we added last year because prices were down.” He said he continually monitors energy prices all the way to the port of Houston. “My colleagues,” he said, “are jealous of us.”
Asked by Select Board member Emily Mitchell about signs of reduced demand for services, Heidi Porter, director of Health and Human Services, said there has been an “uptick” since summer.
Finance Committee member Ben Thomas, promising to closely review departmental budgets when submitted, said to the department heads, “Thank you for the efforts you put in to make this happen.” He asked them to “thank all the employees in your departments. The goal of people who work for the town is to make the town the best they can.”
The first hour of the retreat was devoted to reviewing elements of the town budget process and definitions. Town Manager Sarah Stanton enumerated local “principles” of budget formulation: make conservative projections, “hoping for the best and preparing for the worst;” match one-time revenue with one-time expenses; and “evaluate functions, programs, and activities to ensure that they are meeting current priorities and challenges.”
David Castellarin, Finance Director, described the difference between recurring and one-time revenue. “Using one-time revenue in operations would cause a structural deficit going forward,” he said. He also explained the state tax limitation law known as Proposition 2 ½ and what excess levy capacity represents.
Disposition of federal Covid-relief funds also was covered. McClung asked for a detailed accounting of the allocations.
She also reminded that the Select Board and Finance Committee have signed off on fiscal policies. Carluccio said that after town meeting, “it would make sense for us to revisit them,” accounting for the impact of inflation and the pandemic.