Town Manager Matt Hanson presented a $21,026,818 draft budget to the Bedford Select Board on Monday, reflecting an increase of about 5 percent over the current year’s spending.
Hanson said the differential is $234,864, and of the new spending, $178,948 covers maintenance costs of accounting and public safety software purchased this year. He excluded almost all requests from department heads for new personnel, including eight police officers as recommended in a recent staffing study.
The Finance Committee several weeks ago approved a 3.5 percent guideline for fiscal 2025 spending growth. Hanson said adherence to that rate would have necessitated reducing staff. The budget proposed by Superintendent of Schools Cliff Chuang increased by about 6 percent.
“Most departments received level-service budget increases that incorporate contractually required salary increases and minor expense increases resulting from inflation,” Hanson told the board.
“For practical purposes, 3.5 percent covers a cost-of-living raise plus some equipment inflation increases. That’s just level service,” Hanson said. “The impact of inflation continues to strain all of our equipment, supply, and salary line items,” and “even as inflation rates begin to cool it is unlikely that any costs will see actual decreases from current levels.”
One of Hanson’s key concerns is losing a competitive edge for recruiting and retaining staff. He hopes to increase the town’s share of health insurance premiums, currently at 61 percent for family coverage and 83 percent for individuals.
Most cities and towns offer 70-80 percent for a family plan, he said. The recommended $996,034 for insurance in fiscal 2025, a 6.45 percent increase, includes “a little bit of money to help make some headway” as part of contract negotiations, he said.
Hanson noted that one employee who recently resigned said the benefits package was “a big part of the decision.”
He said recent collective bargaining agreements in nearby towns have featured annual pay raises of 4 to 5 percent. The Bedford budget includes $309,118 in merit increases for 90 non-union employees – a 3 percent increase. The town manager said reducing that amount “would be disastrous in the long term. We would fall further behind as people leave for better opportunities.”
The only new position incorporated in the proposal is a $65,000 payroll administrator, which Hanson said has been discussed for several years and was a “major stress point” in recent efforts to hire a human resources director. Currently, payroll processing is “a strain on the entire Finance Department” as well as other department staff who “act as part-time payroll folks.”
Meanwhile, “The town made the decision to invest in technology to make our public safety departments more efficient,” he said, and “there’s an ongoing cost associated with capital improvements.”
Hanson also outlined the non-discretionary budget categories. Although principal and interest are projected to decline by $623,240, the allocation for road repair and resurfacing would rise $498,130, a 30 percent jump after level-funding this year.
Board member Margot Fleischman mentioned the police staffing study. Hanson said he met with Police Chief John Fisher, who not only requested eight additional officers but also another emergency communications person and a dispatch manager. Hanson said this year the goal is just to achieve full police staffing.
Fleischman asked what he envisions a year from now, and Hanson suggested either one additional officer or a dispatcher.
Overall, he said, it’s impossible to foresee a 3.5 percent increase for fiscal 2026, with software costs declining. But the results of a salary and benefits study, expected in January, could indicate that positions are underpaid. It’s also hard to predict what will happen with the cost of health insurance, he added.
Hanson also informed the board that residents’ access to electric vehicle chargers on public property is costing the town about $40,000 this year. The town manager said the Facilities Department feels they should be converted to require payment. Some board members noted that they hope town workers could continue to use them free as an employment benefit.