Members of the Bedford Finance Committee said last week they are receptive to meeting the need for additional police officers.
But the consensus was the financial impact has to be neutralized, and members cited a proposed 30 percent increase – more than $498,000 — in spending on street and road maintenance.
The discussion highlighted the committee’s review of municipal departmental budgets presented by Town Manager Matt Hanson. Chair Ben Thomas advised the six other members, some of whom have not been through a budget cycle, “Every year there’s this painful point where we find we can’t afford all the things we want. It feels like we’re saying no to everybody. We have to decide based upon the whole picture, and we have to make it all work.”
Several members said they want to digest all of the financial variables for fiscal year 2025 before prioritizing.
Hanson’s proposed budget reflects an increase of about 5.3 percent over the current fiscal year. The Finance Committee spending guideline was 3.5 percent. Most of the increase is attributable to maintenance costs for new software and additional funding to improve employee health benefits, said Select Board Chair Bopha Malone in her introduction.
Hanson pointed out that he denied almost all requests from municipal department heads for additional spending, including Police Chief John Fosher’s proposal for additional officers and two dispatchers, as recommended by a recent staffing analysis of the department.
In answer to a question from member Mark Bailey, Hanson explained that even though his budget surpasses the guideline, he was working in the context of a “level-service directive.” So, his initial goal was to fill existing Police Department vacancies. “There were a lot of retirements and we were down several officers at a time,” he said.
“Even if we phase in one or two this year, it will be at least the end of 2025 before everything is filled,” Hanson said, adding, “If you give me the money, we will be perfectly happy with that.”
Thomas acknowledged, “Maybe I can get behind one or two additional next year.”
The committee invited Fisher to provide details. Currently, he explained, there’s no room for “shrinkage” in the schedule, and the result is high overtime costs – he said the department has already exceeded its overtime budget line, less than seven months into the fiscal year.
“It isn’t just a budget number; it’s the cost on our members. It’s the ability to provide for members a life outside the Police Department,” he said. “We have exemplary police officers and I want to keep them here and be attractive for new hires. It’s hard for me to do that with this budget.”
The staffing study, Fisher pointed out, called for not only three immediate additional officers, but also “over-hiring” five more in anticipation of retirements expected over the next three years.
He also described the study’s recommendations for additional staff, especially another dispatcher. “One of the requitements is you can’t be distracted when giving lifesaving information,” he explained, so backup is always essential. He also noted the need for an additional office employee to handle increasing requests for public records.
Fisher, answering a question from member Philip Prince, said full staffing would come close to offsetting overtime payments.
Earlier in the meeting, Director of Public Works David Manugian explained that investing in a pavement condition index of at least 80 represents a reduction in future liability. He said the current index is close to 85. “We now are in a position of more flexibility. Over the last few years, we saw significant drop off in our backlog,” he reported.
Asked by member Karen Dunn why his previous pavement index target of 70 is now considered too low, Manugian explained that over the last 5-10 years, paving materials – many of them recycled — have declined in quality.
“We have painful choices. Is 30 percent maybe a little high for an increase this year?” Thomas inquired. He wondered, “What’s more important: slightly better roads or more police officers?” Then he added that the question is “hypothetical. I completely get that it’s an investment.”
Hanson pointed out that road repairs and maintenance “can go up dramatically,” but acknowledged that “we probably can come down.”
The town manager said he tries to avoid paying for staffing with one-time budget reductions, but “there are some creative ways where $100,000 could help out a department like police.”
“My hope is after you meet with schools, if you want, you can make recommendations to us on roads or public safety – or I can make recommendations to you. I would feel comfortable being a little more creative looking at retirement timeline and hiring cycle, to get some positions into the budget.”
“We would like to see you do something with offsets in your budget,” Thomas said. Member Abbie Seibert added, “Police and roads might complement each other.”
Hanson also pointed out that most town departments are two-person operations with little room for significant cost-cutting.
“To make meaningful impacts, there’s nowhere I can cut to meet the Police Department request,” he told the panel.
The town manager said there are places where he is finding smaller amounts. For example, ending free public access to the electric vehicle charging stations near town and school buildings will save $40,000 a year, he said.
Prince asked the town manager, if necessary, what’s the first budget item he would cut. Hanson said the position of capital project manager, which now is funded through the capital article. He added that his proposed payroll administrator – the only additional position in the budget – “as important as it is,” hasn’t been filled.
Members asked about a few other line items.
“Overall, the numbers seem very fiscally responsible,” Prince said.
He asked about managing the costs of utilities, and Facilities Director Ron Scaltreto explained that his office, assisted by consultants with “daily updates,” scour the markets as contracts approach expiration.
“If we have good numbers, we try to look for longer contracts to provide for financial stability,” Scaltreto said. “It is gambling to some degree, but it’s educated gambling.”
There are also operational steps that can save money, he added, such as staggering the timing for activating heating and ventilation systems in buildings “so you don’t get spikes in consumption that really affect what you pay. When I can shut stuff off, I shut it off.”
Finance Director David Castellarin reminded that there are two additional municipal spending components that together account for almost $1.9 million: the town’s contribution to an account offsetting other post-employment benefit liability, and a deposit to the stabilization fund.