Bedford Town Manager Sarah Stanton on Monday unveiled her proposed fiscal 2024 municipal budget, driven to a 6.73 increase over the current year primarily by “the widespread impact of inflation.”
“Labor shortages, supply chain issues, and increasing costs are interconnected, and all present budget pressures,” Stanton said in her budget cover letter to the Select Board. “Creativity only goes so far when we are faced with these steep cost increases.”
Select Board members reinforced the rationale as they commented on the proposal during their meeting on Monday.
“This is a budget of needs, not wants,” said Chair Emily Mitchell. “It’s about what we do as a town and what we want to continue to do.”
Stanton said she hopes the board can vote on the budget at its next meeting on Monday, Jan. 9, and then transmit it to the Finance Committee, which last month voted a 3.5 percent increase as the guideline for the proposed municipal and school budgets.
“I think we know we are going into some deep and complex conversations with the Finance Committee,” Mitchell said.
The town manager also suggested infusing the revenue side of the budget with an additional $2 million in free cash, “to adhere to the Finance Committee’s request” to avoid tapping into unused levy capacity.
The departmental budget proposal totals $20,158,283 and features a new human resources and benefits position for $65,000. Stanton said the town has 363 full-and part-time employees, with only a single personnel specialist. The budget also includes restoring reduced hours of the assistant treasurer/collector for $42,993, and $39,520 for adding a part-time building inspector.
But primarily, Stanton said, the budget’s growth is because “it’s more expensive to do what we did last year this year, in many instances substantially.”
She provided several examples in her cover letter: non-perforated PVC piping up 190 percent from a year ago, boiler valves up 64 percent, manhole frames and covers 53 percent, diesel fuel 53 percent, fuses 38 percent, concrete paving up 35 percent, roadway paint up 29 percent, sports field paint – 22 percent higher, paper towels up 22 percent, gasoline – 20 percent higher, toilet paper – 15 percent more, and cleaning rags up 11 percent in cost.
The biggest single departmental increase is $245,590 for computer services, including $200,000 for the first-year implementation of the Munis software, an integrated package that covers all financial aspects of local government. Stanton reminded that this cost was anticipated when the town approved purchasing Munis.
Stanton said the proposal is also a result of decisions over the past three fiscal years. During the first year of the pandemic, there were no pay raises for management and other non-union personnel. A year later, “the town scaled back requests due to pandemic uncertainty.” And for the current year, the budget adhered to the Finance Committee’s 2.5 percent guideline, except for the addition of an energy manager position.
“We have adhered to the recommended austerity for the Finance Committee for many years,” Stanton said. “The pent-up needs for departments are very great. We just don’t have any money.”
Stanton acknowledged that the Finance Committee’s relaxed guideline of 3.5 percent was “very generous.” But the additional revenue represented would cover only the costs of new software implementation and merit increases to non-union personnel.
“Department heads were asked to provide extensive backup documentation and evaluate historical spending for any new request,” the town manager’s cover letter said. On Monday, she told the Select Board, “I have said to department heads to come forth with everything; it doesn’t mean you are going to get it.”
Major increases for the Facilities Department are $126,158 for additional telephone lines and $99,000 for custodial supplies and repairs. This mainly covers outside contractor help for HVAC mechanical and control issues.
“It’s very expensive to call out for help, but better than adding a permanent position,” Stanton said. “We can’t pay what the private sector pays so it’s a greater cost-benefit to have a consultant on call.”
The Department of Public Works budget is proposed to grow by $287,150 “to maintain exactly what we are doing.” Stanton provided examples of “basic costs of materials and goods:” electricity – $55,000, pipes and fittings – $31,000, consulting services – $25,000, brush cutting and tree removal – $20,000, gas – $18,000.
Increases proposed for other departments are: legal services – $16,300; police – $28,250; fire – $19,567; Youth and Family Services – $21,569; Town Center – $2,961; code enforcement – $2,885; Council on Aging – $3,000; Bedford Local Transit backup driver – $2,422; hazardous waste disposal – $1,307.
Stanton also enumerated the budget impact of “non-discretionary” areas. The biggest increase is $564,500 in utilities – an increase of 31.2 percent. “This is the pared-down number,” Stanton said.
In answer to a question from board member Margot Fleischman, Facilities Director Taissir Alani said natural gas is the primary driver for higher utility costs.
The town’s contract for natural gas expired this month, Alani said, and he has determined that it’s less costly to pay the market rate without committing to a new contract. Even so, he said, the cost has grown by 100 percent. The town’s contract for electricity doesn’t expire until next year, Alani noted. However, that doesn’t limit the “unknown variant,” delivery.
Debt service, Stanton reported, will increase by $269,169, which is 2.74 percent. By contract terms, refuse and recycling will rise 5.84 percent – $106,293. Stanton noted that the line item for insurance will decline.
“I definitely am supportive of going above the guideline,” said board member Shawn Hanegan. “It definitely makes sense in an inflationary environment. We see it in our own lives. Three and a half percent would mean a significant reduction in services and that’s not what people want.”
Ed Pierce acknowledged the need for more help with human services on the town staff. He also said, “If we cut, it’s a cost of service to the community that has an expectation of this level. There’s a point in time where for maintenance of service you have to do it.”
Fleischman, citing “how much we deferred last year,” noted, “We knew some of these things would be coming back.” Her colleague Bopha Malone asked about additional assistance in the town food bank; Stanton said a state grant is covering the paid position for the next three years.
Ultimately, “a budget is a statement of values,” said Mitchell. “We show we value the services we provide, a well-maintained town, and our dedicated employees, and we value fiscal responsibility, and impact on taxpayers. Loss of services would have an impact, too.”
Stanton said the town anticipates certified free cash of $14.2 million – an increase of more than $4.5 million. Channeling an additional $2 million in free cash would maintain current excess levy capacity, which the Finance Committee supports, she said.
Stanton acknowledged that using free cash to manage the tax rate is part of a balancing act.
“Are we hard and fast on levy capacity or are we willing to pull multiple levers?” Pierce asked. “I’m not sure I’m with you on the $2 million free cash.”
In answer to a question from Pierce, Stanton said the $2 million would cover not only town and school spending above the guideline, but also additional non-discretionary costs.