OXFORD — Fewer than 50 residents passed all 39 articles on the town of Oxford’s annual town meeting warrant Saturday morning. Some budget increases brought questions from tax payers worried about spending levels amid the coronavirus pandemic, town revenue losses from the recently reopened Oxford Casino approaching $500,000 and anticipated cuts to Maine revenue sharing funds. A few articles were passed with amendments to lower the approved amount, one by $40,000.

The budget as presented was $10,286,937 and most items were approved as recommended.

Article 4 with a budgeted increase of $49,633 to administration costs was the first item to be scrutinized by taxpayers. Resident Floyd Thayer spoke first, requesting an explanation.

Town Manager Butch Asselin explained the $50,000 increase is mostly due to there being a 53rd week of payroll expenses in the coming fiscal year,  higher health insurance costs, contributions to Maine state retirement funds and increases in contractual obligations for technology services.

Resident Tom Cushman questioned how many times taxpayers would be expected to pay more for insurance, with other residents adding that Oxford should cap how much it contributes to employee health benefits.

Betty Wuori, who serves on the budget committee, expressed frustration that the committee had been unable to have a say on the insurance costs because it had already been contracted. She felt that the current policy of paying 100% of employee health benefits should be revised to shift some of the contribution onto workers.

“We cannot keep going and going every year and the townspeople pay for it,” Wuori said. “This is a prime example this year. We asked about cutting it because of the casino and loss of that money.

“I don’t know how we might tap it, but as a budget committee member I felt that it was a waste of my time. We basically had to say ‘that’s okay.’ It was difficult to do it [budget] through the computers anyway. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.”

Oxford resident and State Legislator Kathleen Dillingham urged caution on spending, as she expects the state government is going to take a sharp look at its own budget when actual revenue shortfalls are calculated at the end of the month. Current estimates put the shortfall at $800 million.

“Looking at the increases, I understand the town’s needs,” Dillingham said. “But I don’t want anyone to have sticker shock when you get the next tax bill because you are going to have to make up the gap.”

Other residents argued that regardless of the economy, all employees and especially those in public safety, deserved and needed their health insurance.

Select Vice-Chair Samantha Hewey argued strongly to maintain full health benefits for municipal employees.

“We all talk every day about how we support our front line workers,” she said. “We make Facebook posts and we all say we stand with them. This is your time to support our front line.

“If we cut this $50,000, Oxford is not going to cut insurance. We have already flat-lined the budget. [Next] We are going to cut your services. We can’t cut requirements for testing in the sewer department. If we cut maintenance on the fire truck we have to be able to still drive the fire truck.”

Hewey also stressed that good benefits are necessary to retain employees, pointing out that a healthcare worker in the private sector can make $30,000 a year more than a public safety worker.

Asselin assured residents that municipal department heads worked hard to rein in costs on next year’s budget, taking it from a 6% increase in early drafts down to be overall flat with the fiscal year that just ended. He also pointed out that the impact of lower casino revenues was partially offset with increased excise tax revenue, bank dividends and cost-cutting across all departments.

Resident Paula Thayer argued the proposed overall budget is not truly flat because $400,000 in capital improvements were removed from it. But when new public safety vehicles need to be purchased in the future the town will have to borrow money for them instead of drawing from its capital expenditures fund.

A motion to amend Oxford’s administration budget to be flat with last year’s was voted on and failed.  Residents then voted to approve the Selectmen’s recommended budget of $771,202.

Another contested budget item was the addition of overnight staff at the Rescue Department at a cost of $116,000. Cushman wanted to know how two positions could have a bottom line cost of $58,000 each. Fire Chief Paul Hewey answered that even though he is adding two staff per day, it actually adds social security and other payroll expenses to salaries of four employees, as it is for seven-nights-a-week staffing.

Hewey also pointed out that rescue call volumes have increased about 10% year over year since Oxford Casino opened, with more of those calls coming during the overnight hours.

“We identified seven years ago that this would eventually happen,” Hewey said. “It’s at the point where we have to act.”

Residents then approved the Rescue Department budget to be $428,227, as recommended by Selectmen.

Selectmen supported approving Article 17, Cemeteries Account, at $3,000 more than the Budget Committee had recommended. The $3,000 would pay for database software to manage records for all the cemeteries and plot deeds.

Town Clerk Elizabeth Olsen explained that Oxford’s burial records the current system, which is an Excel spreadsheet is cumbersome and insecure. It has also been poorly maintained at times, resulting in some burial lots being double sold and contains burial record errors. Once in place, residents would be able to access the database publicly and view all burial records and view open lots.

Resident Sidney Jackson suggested that with the uncertainties Oxford is facing on revenues that the purchase could be delayed for the time being.

“We could just move it to a Google sheet, that would be fine,” she said. “And save the $3,000 for now. We’ve gone all this time without it. Like, what’s one more year?”

Sidney Jackson made a motion to approve Article 17 at the $17,900 that the Budget Committee recommended and not the $20,900 by Selectmen.

“There have been times when the same lot has been sold to two different people,” Selectman Sharon Jackson, who also serves on the Cemetery Committee, said in support of the purchase. “It is important to know who is buried in what lots. Doing it on Google is not the way to go. Nor is a spreadsheet. This database will maintain the data forever.”

Oxford Historical Society Patricia Larrivee also spoke in favor of upgrading cemetery management.

“We all live, we all die, and $3,000 is not a lot of money to bring our system into the 21st century,” said Larrivee, urging voters to support the original article.

“I agrees with Sidney,” countered Budget Committee member Amy Wuori. “The $3,000 might sound minimal, but we have to start cutting somewhere. I’m sure the spreadsheet is backed up on a server. This is one of the things the Budget Committee felt was not a necessity for this year.”

The amendment failed, with 15 voting to drop the $3,000 from the budget and 24 voting against the motion. The article then passed for the amount of $20,900.

Article 25 on the warrant, which originally called for a road improvements bond of $2,263,000 was approved for an amount not to exceed $2,222,995, a result of negotiating better terms with a different bank since the budget was drafted last spring.

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