RUMFORD — In less than 90 minutes, selectmen at Friday night's meeting approved a municipal budget recommendation of $7.24 million.
At $7,244,419, it represents a 1.22 percent increase or $88,704 higher than last year's budget of $7,155,715.
Driving the increase were a 2 percent hike in non-union town employee wages, a 3 percent hike in police union wages and a $54,600 increase in hydrant rental fees levied by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.
Town Manager Carlo Puiia said the fee — over which the town has no control — jumped from $300,400 last year to $355,000 this year.
Most of the discussion with department heads and Selectmen Chairman Brad Adley and Selectmen Mark Belanger, Greg Buccina and Jeff Sterling was completed during a budget workshop on Tuesday, Adley explained at the meeting's start.
However, on Friday, the board became embroiled in lengthy discussions amongst themselves and a couple of department heads on police and library budgets.
Belanger started discussion on the police budget of $817,332, which is up $13,902 over last year's $803,430, saying he felt uneasy that the board didn't make any cuts to proposed budgets submitted by department heads.
Last fall, selectmen set a goal of paring 10 percent from the 2009-10 budget to proactively prevent another huge hike in taxation following last year's 22-percent spike when Rumford's largest taxpayers lost more than $100 million in valuation.
Belanger said that goal wasn't met.
“When the whole thing transpired, the board had taken a vote to try and fix a savings, and I was hoping this would reflect it,” Belanger said. “It should be 5 or 10 percent, because at some point, we're not going to be able to support these and the taxpayers are going to carry the burden.”
Sterling motioned to accept Puiia's request of $817,332. It was seconded. More discussion ensued.
“My vote would recommend not cutting anything from police and fire,” Adley said. “I know how busy they are, and they are both very needed services.”
Buccina said that while he agreed with Belanger, he believes the board should give credence to the town's department heads, who have reduced budgets to the point of running a “lean machine.”
“At this point, if you look back three, four years ago, we have pared down all of these budgets, and I think we're a lot leaner than we were,” Buccina said.
Unless voters don't approve budget recommendations at town meeting in June, he said the board should trust and rely on the town's department heads.
“Part of our job is to be vigilant like Mark said, but a lot of it is to provide services,” Adley said.
He said the police budget costs the average taxpayer $109.92 annually.
Police Chief Stacy Carter said he had no control over the board's negotiated 3-percent increase in police union wages.
“I think that as a department head, I've done my job to give a service within an affordable means,” Carter said.
“When people come to me and say they're trying to decide if they should buy drugs or pay their taxes … I feel the crap is going to hit the fan at some point,” Belanger said. “We always seem to have large departments, considering our population.”
But when pressed by Adley and Buccina to specify cuts he would make, Belanger said he had no idea because he isn't a department manager.
The budget was then approved 3-1, with Belanger dissenting. That tally was the same in approving many other budgets, including the library request of $238,320.
Adley did suggest reducing the library's weekly 58 hours open, but backed off when librarian Karl Aromaa explained that it was a necessity, because an average of 176 people use the library every day, totaling more than 51,000 visits annually.
“The library doesn't do the town any good unless it's open,” Aromaa said.