May 12 2016
Town Meeting Passes $124.9 Million Operating Budget
By: Rich Hosford
Burlington Town Meeting voted to approve the proposed FY 2017 operating budget in full for a sum of $124,919,090.
While some of the department budgets were passed without discussion, 19 of them were “held” for further questions and sometimes debate.
Here are some of the highlights:
As has been the case in the last couple of years, there was some opposition to transferring funds to the Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) fund.
OPEB refers to benefits, other than pensions, that employees will receive after they retire. In Burlington, the most significant of these benefits is health insurance. In 2012 Burlington started an OPEB trust fund, with an initial contribution of $750,000, to cover future health insurance liabilities. From 2013 and 2015 Town Meeting approved adding $500,000 each time to bolster the fund for the future.
The line item for this year was $546,500, because, Town Administrator John Petrin explained, the plan discussed last year was to increase the amount by 9 percent each year going forward.
Two members, Steven Stamm and Matt Frost, argued against adding the money to the fund.
Town Treasurer Brian Curtin said that when the town first studied its uncovered OPEB liability the estimate was $128 million and in the latest study that amount had dropped to $74 million. He said Town Meeting’s funding of the account played a significant role in the drop.
Frost argued there were other factors that did not include moving money to the fund.
“The reason for the decrease in OPEB is unexplained changes in actuarial assumptions,” he said.
Petrin argued that OPEB played heavily on how rating agencies viewed municipal finances. He said the town currently has a AAA bond rating (the highest) and during every review they are asked about OPEB.
“When they review our status the first question they ask is where we stand on OPEB, it is the hot issue of the day,” he said. “We’ve added $4 million to the trust fund and they look highly upon that.”
In the end Town Meeting voted to approve the Central Administration budget that contained the line-item in full.
As reported on BNEWS, both the Burlington Fire and Police Departments are seeking additional staffing over the next couple of years to keep up with the demands put on them from the growth in town.
The Police Department is looking to add one new member each year for the next five years. The budget was approved with little discussion.
There were more questions about the Fire Department’s plan, which is to add four new members this year and four next year.
In total the proposed Fire Department budget had an increase of 4.92 percent from $6.7 million to $7 million. Ways & Means supported the article with a vote of 10 in favor, one against and one abstaining.
Fire Chief Steve Yetman and Petrin said that at current staffing levels the department was not able to constantly man its ambulances. If there is a big event or multiple calls at once normally just about all the members on hand go out, leaving nobody for medical emergencies.
There was some discussion about what level of ambulance response the department provides, with his Basic Life Support, and whether or not they could upgrade to Advanced Life Support. If they did this, some Town Meeting members argued, they wouldn’t need to rely on the third-party Armstrong Ambulance.
Currently when Advanced Life Support is required the department is supported by Armstrong paramedics and the payment from the patient’s insurance is split between the two agencies. If Burlington Fire could provide the advanced support the department could keep all of the funds.
Yetman said that was a possibility for the future but at this time his department needed to address the staffing shortage.
He referenced a fire department report says no additional firefighters have been added to the roster since 1978 and it currently employs 66 members.
In 1979 the department had a total of 2,406 responses and in 2015 it had 7,616 responses, and increase of 216 percent.
In the end Town Meeting did vote to approve the budget increase for the new members.
The School Department requested a 4.14 percent increase over FY16. The total operating budget was increased by 3.99 percent and the special education budget was increased by 4.95 percent.
A good part of the increase came from a proposal to hire six new people to fill seven full and part-time positions. Included in this were an assistant principal for Memorial School and to reinstate an assistant principal at Francis Wyman Elementary.
Superintendent Eric Conti said the assistant principals were needed because under state rules there is a lot more evaluation of staff and programs and since in elementary schools the principal is the only administrator and the only one who can do evaluations help is needed.
The other positions were an occupational therapist for Marshall Simonds Middle School, two middle school instructional assistants and a person to do both elementary music and middle school music.