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Friday, February 3, 2012

Increase proposed for town budget

LITCHFIELD – The town and school district operating budgets, the term of the newly appointed fire chief and a new high school athletic trainer top the list of issues to be addressed by voters this weekend at Litchfield’s Deliberative Sessions.

Both town and school officials will hold their meetings Saturday, inviting voters to weigh in on a number of proposals before they head to the polls in March.

On the town side, the operating budget proposal sits at $4.96 million – about $470,000, or 10 percent higher than the current year’s spending plan. Most of those increases stem from last year’s elections, when voters approved increases to the town’s fire hydrant fees and Highway Block Grant funds, among other costs, according to Town Administrator Jason Hoch.

If passed, the budget would add 44 cents to the town tax rate, according to budget documents. Town residents can weigh in on the matter, along with the other town and school proposals, at Saturday’s deliberative session before moving them forward to the March 13 elections.

“The people who might compare bottom line to bottom line might say, ‘Hey, that number’s jumped up.’ ... But that all comes from past votes,” Hoch said. “On the whole, this is a pretty basic budget.”

Beyond the budget proposal, voters will consider a $70,000 proposal to replace the roof at Litchfield Town Hall, which doubles as the police station. The roof has grown aged and worn over the years, officials said. And the funding for the project would come entirely from surplus funds rather than increased budget costs.

“It wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything,” Hoch said.

In other items, town officials are also proposing to hire a part-time recreation coordinator, to provide a 1.5 percent cost of living wage to non-union employees and to establish a three-year term for the town’s appointed fire chief.

Voters elected last year to transition the fire chief from an elected position to appointed. Town officials have not yet hired a new chief, though they are reviewing applications and plan to make an appointment in the coming weeks, Hoch said.

If the proposal passes, selectmen would re-appoint the chief every three years.

On the school side, the district’s $20.8 million operating budget proposal measures about $875,000, or 3.4 percent higher, than the current $20 million spending plan. The increase is largely due to increases in fixed costs, such as retirement, health insurance and workers’ compensation costs.

Some residents, however, aren’t satisfied with the town’s budget proposal. A collection of about 25 voters has submitted a petitioned warrant article looking to bypass the operating budget and defer instead to the 20.9 million default budget, which equals the current year’s budget with contracted salary obligations.

The petition article requires a three-fifths majority vote to pass at the town elections. Union salaries in the school district are frozen at their current levels, but, in a separate warrant article, members of the district school board are proposing a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for non-union employees, which would add about $40,500 to district costs, according to town documents. “One percent is less than the increase in the (Consumer Price Index),” Superintendent Elaine Cutler said, referring to the wage increase. Non-union staff received a similar 1 percent raise last year.

In other matters, the district warrant also includes proposals to publicly fund the wrestling program at Campbell High School ($9,825), to finance special education paraprofessionals for the summer reading program at the Griffin Memorial School ($6,415), and to cover a part-time reading specialist at Campbell High School ($25,836).

District administrators eliminated the high school position last year in the face of state budget cuts, but some of the state funds have been restored, leaving school officials money to restore the position, Cutler said. “This is one position we haven’t put back yet,” she said. “We’d like to have it restored.”

Of the various staff proposals, the one that could garner the most discussion is a $33,000 pitch for a full-time athletic trainer at the high school, Cutler said. School administrators have contracted the position part-time, but a full-time trainer could help to better guard against concussions and other athletic injuries, she said.

“The purpose of this is to have maximum preventative, recuperative and supervisory personnel at every game and every event we have,” Cutler said. “The community will be looking at this one carefully.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.