The Bedford Finance Committee spent almost three hours scrutinizing the proposed fiscal year 2024 budget for town departments on Thursday. No one had any significant differences about the hundreds of line items.
But some members still expressed dismay about the magnitude of the budget increase.
The $20,158,283 proposed budget is 6.7 percent greater than the current year’s – $761,772 more than the Finance Committee’s 3.5 percent increase guideline.
“I’m extremely concerned about 6.7 percent, almost double the guideline,” said Steve Steele, adding that “tax bills are going to skyrocket.”
Elizabeth McClung said, “I worry about the people in the middle paying the bills. They’ve got inflationary costs, too.”
But there were other viewpoints. Karen Dunn said, “I haven’t heard anything that sounds unreasonable to me. It is well supported and thoughtful.”
Abbie Seibert said, “The level of detail we are hearing about is really amazingly impressive. That’s what gives us confidence.”
And several members acknowledged that the 3.5 percent guideline was not realistic. “I’m not the slightest bit surprised that you have gone over guideline,” said Ben Thomas. “That’s no surprise,” concurred Tom Rowan.
Ron O’Brien observed, “I do share concern over the 6.73 percent increase. I don’t think 3.5 is the right answer, either.”
The committee won’t vote on the budget until mid-February. The proposed fiscal year 2024 education budget is scheduled for presentation on Feb. 9.
“Right now, we don’t have the whole picture, and we will at the end. We’re building up to it,” said Ben Thomas.
Finance Committee budget recommendations are the numbers presented to Town Meeting.
Inflation is the primary driver of the increase, and even if rising prices level off, that’s not expected to have much of an impact on next year, Stanton wrote.
The budget includes a few additional personnel: a human resources/benefits coordinator at a salary of $65,000; a part-time building inspector and a part-timer in the town clerk’s office.
Select Board Chair Emily Mitchell told the committee that the budget is both “realistic and sufficient.”
Town Manager Sarah Stanton’s presentation proposed “using an additional $2 million in free cash” next fiscal year. She pointed out that with that scenario, “unused levy capacity will remain at $8 million, and the impact to taxpayers will be minimized.”
The state Department of Revenue has not yet certified Bedford’s free-cash balance, but it is expected to be more than $14 million.
The Finance Committee was not enthusiastic about this approach. Several members pointed out that by using free cash to pay for normal town operations, the cost to the taxpayer is just deferred until the free cash is exhausted.
Other major drivers are implementation costs of the new municipal software program, increased charges by outside repair contractors, and costs of supplies, electricity, and equipment for the Public Works and Facilities Departments.
Finance Committee members asked for explanations on a panoply of budget lines: the merit pay structure for managers, increase costs of computer services, medical supplies on fire apparatus, telephones, tree removal, economic development. Stanton had a detailed response to every point.
Occasionally, she turned to one of the municipal department heads in the gallery for details. Several Finance Committee members remarked on how impressed they were by the support of the department heads.
O’Brien stressed that budgeting based on actual expenses, which are mostly below budget, would result in a smaller increase. Stanton said there are ebbs and flows, and a snapshot of actual spending doesn’t always reflect the full annual cycle.
Seibert took a different approach, asking about departmental “wish lists” and explaining, “It’s important to see what we are moving toward.” McClung broke in to say that the budget is supposed to reflect the needs of the town, not of the professional staff. But Stanton pointed out that the elected and appointed officials who direct and advise the staff are also residents.
At the end of the meeting, Paul Mortenson stepped down as Finance Committee chair because he is one of two candidates for two openings on the Select Board in the March 11 Town Election. Thomas was elected the new chair, and Seibert vice chair.