With Bedford’s budget already in a high-six-figure hole, elected officials renewed their annual struggle Thursday night to make do with less.
Before the first dime has been allocated for services to the public next year, the budget-makers face more than $1.3 million in mandated outlays for such things as debt service, employee benefits and contributions to state pensions. The state's new tax cap permits an increase just over a half-million dollars, leaving more than $800,000 that must be cut from the operating end. The cuts necessarily must come from spending that was deemed necessary, even in an atmosphere of austerity, a scant 12 months ago.
In the second year of tax-cap budgeting—and the first in which spending is based on a severely diminished allocation from the previous year—the town board heard Thursday from leaders of the police, public works and building departments, major areas of town spending.
In recent years, the board has asked department heads to identify ways to reduce their budgets through cuts ranging from 5 to 15 percent. This year, however, as the board kicked off deliberations on 2013 spending, members suggested a specific dollar reduction—$354,230 in public works, for example—and asked the operating chiefs to identify ways to achieve it.
Bedford chose last year not to be bound by the new cap’s ceiling, invoking early-on the law’s provision for a supermajority vote to override it. The vote provided just-in-case authorization to hike the overall property-tax levy to rise beyond the cap’s nominal 2 percent limit. “I think we have to have that in our pocket,” Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts said at the time. Even as it voted then to defy the cap, however, the board also vowed every effort to honor its limits. In the end, it did. And two workers lost their jobs.
This year, no one has suggested a cap override. Indeed, as the town board formally met for the first time on a 2013 budget a week ago, it was quickly clear that no cow would be too sacred this season to escape cost-cutting consideration. In a free-wheeling, hour-long work session, spending decisions with potentially life-and-death consequences—including emergency ambulance service and police staffing levels—were discussed side by side with such old standbys as unfunded state mandates and employee health-insurance contributions.
Nothing specific was proposed let alone decided, as Councilman David Gabrielson went out of his way to point out to the sparse audience. “We don’t want to cut anything,” he said, “we don’t want to have to do that.”
Still, for cities, towns, school boards and others across the state, the tax cap’s strict limits on property-tax increases create austerity-like pressures on local-government spending. As a result, in municipalities across the state—from wealthiest to the most chronically disadvantaged—budget-making most often begins by searching for what—or whom—to cut.
“It’s just painful choices,” Roberts acknowledged.
Deputy Supervisor Peter Chryssos noted that even small-change fiscal concerns were “chipping away at the fabric of what this community is.”
“There was a little Halloween parade that used to go down the street,” he recalled. Now, under their collective bargaining agreement, Chryssos said, police officers “have to be paid X dollars to work on it.”
“You mean you can’t sit down with the union, or whoever, and say, ‘Look, is this how you want your community to be?’”
“It’s sad to see these things slowly but surely go away,” Chryssos said.
Not surprisingly, much of the talk last week focused on the town’s spending, large and small, on the police. At $5 million, they account for some 20 percent of Bedford’s budget, an inviting but well-defended target for spending slashers.
But under the tax cap’s unyielding pressure, once-unthinkable words like “consolidation” and “county takeover” were in the air last week. Councilman Chris Burdick, the board’s liaison to the department, said he warned Police Chief William Hayes “several months ago” that he might have to address those concepts. Now, Burdick told the board, “I think we’re at that point and . . . I will go to Bill and say, ‘Look, we need to take a hard look at it.’”
Burdick’s fellow councilman, Gabrielson, questioned the force’s staffing levels. “I keep saying, [take] a vigorous look at the size of our police department,” Gabrielson insisted. “We have no crime in this town.”
This week, after Public Works Commissioner Kevin Winn and Building Inspector Steven Fraietta had suggested economies in an open, public work session, the board abruptly voted to hear from the police chief behind closed doors.