PEPPERELL — With a new charter to guide them and a new town administrator to work with, the Finance Committee held its first budget meeting for fiscal 2016 on Wednesday.
The committee started the process by meeting with department heads from some of the smaller departments. Members reviewed operating budget requests submitted to the town administrator.
Next year’s budget will be planned a bit differently than in previous years. Salary and operating expenses will be one part of the budget and capital expenses will be moved to a capital budget, said Chairman Melissa Tzanoudakis.
“We will have a capital five-year rolling plan that will be made up of requests that come in from the departments,” said Town Administrator Mark Andrews. The town will be able to plan for five years of capital expenses and the departments will be able to budget for operating, services and salary expenses.
Of special concern are the budget cuts that town departments have faced after failed override votes.
“The town needs to have a certain set of services to be able to run optimally,” Tzanoudakis said.
When the last override failed, Conservation Administrator Paula Terrasi said she took a 4.8 percent pay cut because her salary is the only line item in her budget. The fiscal year 2016 budget request includes step increase she did not receive.
Terrasi also asked for her hours to be increased from 25 to 27 per week, the amount she had when she was first hired. Those two additional hours would enable her to work on Thursday and see people who come to Town Hall.
In addition to overseeing the conservation lands, she needs to complete the open space and recreation plan so that the town will be eligible to apply for more grants.
After hearing about the projects and learning that the previous conservation administrator worked 30 hours per week, Tzanoudakis asked if Terrasi really needed 30 hours a week to get her work done.
“I just feel there is never a chance we can get to 30 hours again,” Terrasi said. “Ideally, 30 hours, I would have no problem.”
Historically, the town has taken a conservative approach to the budget, Tzanoudakis said. “People still like to see four walls around it.”
Tzanoudakis asked Terrasi to provide what it would cost to increase her hours to 30.
The chairman also wanted more information from the other department heads the committee met with.
Work at the Zoning Board of Appeals varies depending on the economy, Tzanoudakis said. In addition to seeing numbers from the past five years, she would like to see numbers from 2004 to 2006, when the real-estate market was at its height.
Andrews said he would be able to get the figures.
The last time the ZBA needed a reserve fund transfer to pay additional salary was in 2009, said Cheryl Lutcza, ZBA assistant.
Her job description calls for eight to 10 hours a week. When it is busy, she works more hours per week, and fewer hours when there is less to do.
Right now, she is on target and has used between 50 and 60 percent of the hours budgeted for the year, Lutcza said.
The Emergency Management Agency requested funds to pay for academy training for two auxiliary officers. The town reimburses officers for their tuition one year after training is complete, said Director David Querze.
“How do you send people on training not knowing if you’ll be able to fund it?” Tzanoudakis said. Because of the budget schedule, the training has already occurred when the request for funds is made by the department.
“It would behoove us to find a better way to manage that,” she said. “There may not be a better way to fund that.”
Andrews and Querze said they would talk together to see if they can come up with a better procedure.
Building Inspector Harry Cullinan and department assistant Sue Smith asked that their hours be restored.
In 2008, Cullinan’s hours were cut from 32 to 30.5 because the town could not fund a step increase and instead reduced his hours. Smith used to work 16 hours and was cut to 14.
“I’m supposed to leave at 12:30,” Cullinan said. Instead he stays while the women are out at lunch and the builders have figured out he is around.
He might end up staying until 2 p.m.
Tzanoudakis asked if the department had gotten any feedback on reduced hours.
Not having Friday hours in Town Hall means that things cannot be dropped off for the office, Smith said. If Monday is a holiday, nothing gets done until Tuesday.
Customer service is important to the Building Department. Cullinan said he tries speed things up for his clients. “If they have all the paperwork, I give them the permit right there.”
The Finance Committee will continue to meet with department heads and Andrews to work on next year’s budget.
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