BETHEL – Following three grueling hours of discussion Monday night, town officials finalized a $2.34 million municipal budget.

Now it’s up to town meeting voters in June to decide if their proposed 2004 budget merits approval or additional tinkering.

During Monday night’s discussion, four of the five selectmen present and 12 Budget Committee members rejected a proposed $50,000 revaluation.

But both groups split over how much money to take from the undesignated fund balance of $1 million to buy down the tax rate.

Selectmen Chairman Harry Dresser Jr. said that according to the town’s auditor, $264,000 could be taken from surplus to buy down the tax rate.

“We can either use it somehow to reduce the tax rate, buy down our existing debt – although that wouldn’t be a good idea because we refinanced our debt, spend some of it on the ambulance garage project pre-debt or retain the chunk of it,” Dresser advised.

Using the surplus

By a 4-0 vote, selectmen recommend applying $150,000 of surplus monies to the budget, which would increase the tax rate by 1.6 percent to $17.01 per $1,000 of value.

The Budget Committee then deadlocked with a 6-6 vote on the $150,000 in surplus. Instead, committee members decided in a 10-2 second vote to take $200,000 from surplus and keep a flat mill rate of $16.76, a 0.1 percent increase.

“We’ve got to get over the fact that we don’t have a credit card and can buy, buy, buy, buy,” said Budget Committee Chairman Pat Dooen.

The proposed budget, however, doesn’t include items associated with three referendum questions that involve: building a new fire station for $1.3 million, using $150,000 to renovate the ambulance station and using $200,000 plus for police coverage, whether it be local or county.

Both boards tabled votes on Question 3, which asks if the town should authorize selectmen to enter into agreement with Oxford County for law enforcement services.

At issue was the cost of services, which selectmen are slated to nail down at their 7 p.m. meeting Monday, April 21, in the town office.

Selectmen, however, recommended Question 1’s capital improvement project to build a new fire station for $1.3 million by a 3-1 vote. Majority votes by Dresser, Don Bennett and Reggie Brown offset Al Barth’s dissenting vote.

Regionalize, instead

“I’m voting against it, but not because I’m not in favor of it,” Barth said. He said the towns of Bethel, Newry and Greenwood should regionalize their fire departments into one station.

“This is something we should have done years ago. That’s what we’ve got to do in the long run – regionalize. Norway and Paris each have a fire department. That’s idiotic. They each have a police department – idiotic,” he added.

The Budget Committee then deadlocked ina 6-6 vote, which results in no recommendation.

Committee member Francis Dumont argued in favor of taking out a loan to build the fire station because interest rates are so low. Fellow member Fred Nolte, however, argued against it.

“I have all the respect in the world for our fire department,” he said. “Having said that, $1.3 million for our town is an extraordinarily large sum. I cannot in good conscience vote for it.”

Others thought that the fire, police and ambulance departments should be merged into one new complex, until Dumont argued that both groups had already gone that route before and voted against it.

By the same 3-1 tally, selectmen recommended a yes vote for Question 2, which asks voters to authorize the town to borrow $150,000 to improve the ambulance station. The Budget Committee recommended a no vote with a 5-7 tally.

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