Chester Select Board, TRSU Board begin budget work

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The beginning of November marks the start of budgeting season, a time when local government departments and schools propose next year’s spending for their oversight boards to review.

And those boards usually look for savings and worry about getting voters to approve their decisions. The final draft of the budgets must be ready in January for the Town Meeting Day warning and in time to print the annual reports. Town meeting warnings must be posted no less than 30 days before Town Meeting Day, which in 2024 will be Tuesday, March 5.

Traditionally, the Chester Select Board has reviewed budget requests from town departments over several meetings. On Wednesday Nov. 1, the Chester Select Board started the process by hearing from the town’s police, fire and ambulance departments, which in 2023 had combined budgets of a hair less than $1.25 million with projected income of about $378,000. The remaining funds are made up by taxpayers.

The board listens to Matt Wilson, Tom Williams and Mike Randzio discuss their budgets for 2024 Image courtesy of SAPA TV

A few budget lines are still to be determined. One is the amount charged to the Town of Andover for fire, ambulance and dispatching services, which is income, and the amount that each service will need from the capital fund for items like equipment and vehicles, which is expense. That said, the preliminary budget net (expense minus income) is $1,038,929.25 which is 19.65 percent higher than last year. That number will change when those few outlying items are plugged in. Last year’s assessment to Andover  was more than $75,000 and will likely be that amount or higher.

On the expense side, the police payroll costs are up, with the department fully staffed in addition to a 4 percent cost of living increase in the union agreement. But most other department line items remain level with 2023 or with only small hike.

The Fire Department’s budget saw a few lines rise by relatively marginal amounts and others fall the same way. The overall increase from the 2023 budget was less than $4,700. But again, the capital contribution (which was $56,000 last year) has not been worked out and the town is still waiting to find out what the cost of life insurance for firefighters and ambulance personnel will be.

Payroll for the ambulance is up due to hiring another full-time EMT, but now that a number of the staff are Advanced EMTs the town can bill insurers at a higher level for service, which should help to cover those costs. The budget also includes a $14,000 increase for maintenance  of equipment, including the   ambulance. A new ambulance is on order, but there have been delays in its production, according to Deputy Chief of the Ambulance Service Michael Randzio. For now, the capital fund contribution is a blank cell on the budget spreadsheet.

Police Chief Tom Williams spoke at length about the initiatives the department has undertaken in community policing. The department is keeping one of the old cruisers for the traffic enforcement program known as CORE. Town Manager Julie Hance told The Telegraph that seemed like a good idea since the town put money into maintaining it while new cruisers were delayed, but that does not mean that the police will have a fourth car in the future.

“That is a discussion for the Select Board to have,” said Hance.

Williams also spoke of possible future initiatives including a school resource officer via grant funding and a sixth police officer that a study of the department had recommended.

The budgeting process will continue through December.

  • The Nov. 15 meeting will look at the budget for Administrative offices, Facilities and Recreation.
  • The Dec. 6 meeting will focus on the Highway Department budget and the Andover Assessment for fire and ambulance coverage.
  • The Dec. 20 meeting will be devoted to the Water and Wastewater budgets.

TRSU leads school budgeting proposals

On Thursday night, the board of Two Rivers Supervisory Union got a first look at its proposed budget. But unlike the school districts where budgets must be approved by voters in their constituent towns, supervisory union budgets are approved by their boards, which are made up of board members from the SU’s districts.

A pie chart showing where the budget funds would be going presented by Lauren Fierman

Superintendent Lauren Fierman proposed a supervisory union budget of $11,080,939,  an increase of 15.57% over the current year’s budget. Fierman said the two main drivers for the increase are the growth in the amount and cost of providing special education services and a 16.4 percent increase in the cost of health-care benefits with TRSU. She noted that the majority of the expense of the SU is personnel (including Central Office and all of the Special Education staff.) Overall, more than three-quarters of the SU’s expenditures are for special education.

Fierman noted that the proposal to add an assistant director of Special Services (special education) recognizes that the system has doubled what is considered the “normal percentage” of students requiring such support and that administration and oversight now is being handled by one person. She also pointed to in-house programs for autism and social/emotional needs as saving more than $500,000 by reducing the number of students sent to such programs in other districts. That number also includes nearly $60,000 from students placed in these programs from other districts.

Another budget increase – albeit smaller – will come from consolidating technology services within the supervisory union, reorganizing that department and changing how technical support is provided to the schools.

One bright spot is the reduction in the cost of transportation of about $160,000, reflecting that the fleet of school buses purchased by the Green Mountain Unified School District has been paid off.

The TRSU budget will be presented to the Ludlow Mount Holly and Green Mountain boards as part of their budgeting later this month.

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