The Halifax Finance Committee met on Monday, March 13. Town Accountant Sandy Nolan and Town Administrator Cody Haddad met with the Committee to go over their recommendations for the town budget. During the meeting, Haddad told the Committee that Nolan would be retiring at the end of the year. Finance Committee Chair Todd Dargie called it a “significant loss to the town.”
The Committee voted unanimously to recommend all level-funded budget items. They also made a blanket vote to recommend all budget lines that were decreasing.
ADA Compliance projects were listed with a placeholder of $500,000. Dargie explained that the Building Department was working to finalize a list of actual projects and costs that the Committee would need prior to voting to recommend or not.
Regarding the schools, Haddad said, “quite a significant increase here in the elementary school; Sandy and I did express our concern to them that we can’t sustain a six percent increase.” He noted that the Silver Lake assessment was only an increase of $1,000. The debt for the fire suppression system at the elementary school is increasing by $10,000. “We’ve really just started on that debt… we still have about 18 years on the fire suppression,” Nolan said.
Haddad explained to the Committee that the schools would have a capital item for HVAC upgrades at Silver Lake Regional High School and that Halifax’s share would be $202,458. Haddad said, “we have a stabilization fund that was made back in 2016 – basically, Silver Lake had excess funding and they had to return it to the towns – a little over $300,000. Last year we appropriated $110 [thousand] for the tennis courts…. It’s certainly something we can handle, and it makes sense to pull it from the stabilization fund – that’s what it was created for.” Dargie said that the only downside would be that it would “wipe out that account.”
Haddad addressed the changes to the legal budget saying that last year, they voted to recommend a figure of $124,500. Haddad said that they have come in over that number for the last couple of years. To account for that, Haddad increased the budget for legal expenses to $139,500. The Committee voted to recommend the new number.
There was an increase in electricity rates for Town Hall which was recommended by the Committee. “We feel good about getting another good rate,” Haddad said of the small increase. There were some other smaller increases addressed including the audit, website and music expense, and barn maintenance. The Committee also approved a $7,699 increase to the water supply, a $4,000 increase to the water insurance, and a $15,700 increase to water retirement. A gas and oil increase was also approved.
There is a $29,764 increase in the IT expense budget. “A big part of it is that multi-factor authentication; it’s required by your insurance company… so that’s about $15-$20,000 of the increase just in having to implement that software,” Haddad said.
There was a $2,500 increase to recruitment and employment costs that Haddad said would be used for advertising open positions as well as providing adequate training for the staff. The Committee voted to recommend the increase. There was a new cost of just over $40,000 to add a Conservation Agent. “You’re seeing more and more projects come forward that are involving conservation; Halifax is one of the only communities in the area that doesn’t have professional staff for conservation,” Haddad said.
The position was estimated based on 32 hours per week. The Committee asked for more information before voting to recommend.
Haddad also addressed an increase to regulatory clerical. He said that they are looking to make the positions more of an administrative assistant rather than a secretary. “The skill level required for these is far beyond what we consider a secretary… they’re working with engineers, attorneys, the applicants regularly,” Haddad explained. He said that they are also looking to combine the planning and zoning positions to create one full-time position. Haddad noted that these positions have been vacant for several months and said it is very difficult to recruit someone for a 15-hour per week position.
Haddad also explained about the contracted-out animal control expenses. The budgeted amount of $29,952 was the maximum as it was a not to exceed contract. Police Chief Joao Chaves called it a great deal. The Committee voted to approve the increase.
Haddad addressed trash collection/disposal increases. “There’s going to be some significant changes coming overall, the trash pickup as well, the existing vendor has stated that them and others are going more toward the totes – it’s easier for them; they’re not getting out and getting a bag so we’re going to be doing a procurement to get a best price and we’ll likely be switching to totes so there will be a cost associated with that,” Haddad said. The Finance Committee said that they would schedule Recycling to come to a meeting to discuss.
Haddad also told the Committee that Health Agent Bob Valery was recommending $5,000 for beaver remediation. The Committee voted to recommend the increase. Haddad asked the Committee to hold off on voting to recommend the Council on Aging (COA) increase as he said he wanted to sit down with COA Director Darlene Regan to go over it first. The Committee voted to recommend mild increases to both veterans’ affairs and library.
The Park Department is looking to increase their expenses and wages. Committee member Frank Johnston said that the $4,100 was to pay someone minimum wage to act as a parking attendant for Memorial through Labor Day weekends. Chief Chaves said, “I think if we had an attendant there that would deter non-residents from trying to park there.” The Committee approved the increases to the Park Department. They also approved an increase to Plymouth County retirement.
The Committee voted to recommend the group insurance town share with an increase of $73,819. Haddad told them that other insurance including liability, property, and auto would be increasing by seven percent. “I think you heard me mention earlier about our risk management; we need to do a better job of mitigating risk; we haven’t been the best at it recently and as a result our policy is increasing quite a bit,” Haddad said.
Finally, before adjourning, Haddad acknowledged that it has been “standard practice” to try and leave $300,000 of the levy available. He said, “Speaking with Sandy, this was done in an effort – it was anticipated that our retirement costs were going to increase significantly and we’ve reached that time; our retirement costs are increasing significantly and I think you can see in the budget here, there really aren’t significant changes. Most departments did a nice job of level funding and I think any of the changes that are being requested – at least any of the ones that I’m recommending… they’re vital to operations. When you get down to it, this budget doesn’t include any across the board increases… in conjunction with the large increase in retirement, we’re getting to the point where it’s really not going to be feasible for the town to leave that $300,000 in the levy.” He continued, “I think it’s done what it was meant to do and it’s covered us… our staff is underpaid and we really need to do right by our staff and our budget here doesn’t include that.” Haddad said he has five different unions that he is currently bargaining with while noting that he doesn’t anticipate having those negotiations complete by Town Meeting. “We would create a stabilization fund or an article or something along those lines that we would raise and appropriate from the upcoming levy,” Haddad told the Committee.