Mason Budget Hearing, Round 2

The unannounced December 1 Mason budget hearing was pretty much a more detailed version of the first hearing. Exception was that this time Wally Brown, the building maintenance head was present and Road Agent Lizotte was not.

Much interest was generated by the cost of the rented outhouse at the ball field. Currently this costs $110/month, but the number of months it is there (4 or 5) or which year the last bill actually comes in, caused a bit of confusion.

A repeat proposed warrant article of $2,000 for the upcoming 250th anniversary of the town generated a question by newly appointed advisory financial committee member Alford. Was there an actual dollar goal for this fund or was the town “just putting away money for the sake of putting away money?” The selectmen agreed that it might be a good idea for the recreation committee to actually create a plan.

The conservation commission line items caused a bit of confusion for Mr. Alford. We have to say that we agree, the town conservation finances as presented in the 2012, 2013 and 2014 annual reports are hugely inconsistent because they hinge in part on current use penalties that the town transfers to the conservation commission.

The conservation commission is also an independent budgeting entity and allowed to maintain its funds across annual town budget cycles. What the commission does with this money is reported in their section of the annual report, not in the town budget. It’s complicated.

The selectmen indicated that the auditor flagged two similar funds this year; the forestry committee and the recreation committee that have not consistently reported the status of their funds in town reports. Current research indicates that $9,600 of Forestry Committee Funds were transfered to the town for the purposes outlined in warrant article 9 at the March 2012 annual meeting. But then nothing happened.

Rail Road Trail maintenance has been haphazard recentlyly due to the unreliability of current use penalties during “the property value crash”. This may be partially the reason for failure to spend the $9,600 since that project was to be shared between Forestry and Conservation. So now there’s a question of how to get that money, which has been swallowed by the general fund, back to the Forestry Committee.

And the selectmen once again refused to release an initial audit, which has been done for 2015, but still not approved by them; so further reporting at this stage would be speculation.

Tax Collector/Town Clerk Deb Morrison presented with more detail a proposal to change her office hours to align with those available at NHDMV. This is mostly a matter of small adjustments to the current hours, but also adds an additional day. She is proposing to offset much of the increase in her salary line item with a reduction of the deputy Tax Collector/Town Clerk hours. The selectmen agreed in principle with the realignment of hours, but did note that it would look like a 30% increase in her line item.

The selectmen reserved the right to adjust the final Tax Collector/Town Clerk number as they have still not settled on what salary adjustments for the other departments would be. Since salaries are a major component of the town budget there is still no bottom line for the entire proposed budget. A final number might have to wait until the advertised hearing currently scheduled for January 26.

In the selectmen’s budget, the business manager Wiley pointed out that the appropriation for legal of $10,000 had an actual expenditure of $21,048. This appears to be similar to the 2014 version of $7,500 budgeted, $21,698 spent. The selectmen agreed to split the baby and budget $15,000 for next year. Reasons given for the large discrepancy are a tax/foreclosure issue that keeps changing court venues, labor issues and the MacDonald woodshed case.

In other legal matters Selectman Moser indicated that Mason’s dues to the NH Municipal Pipeline Coalition would be around $15,000 for next year. This does not effect the proposed town budget since those funds come out of an $80,000 expendable trust created at the 2014 annual meeting. However, most of the money spent to date has been for legal posturing; Mr. Moser indicated that the selectmen might have to go back to the voters for more funds should actual court proceedings occur.

The most heated part of the hearing occurred around the Fire Department Administrative Assistant line item which last year was budgeted for $1800 but mostly not spent. The selectmen noted this was a repeat of 2013 when nothing was spent, and 2012 when the numbers were $425 of $2000.

Chief Baker indicated that the current occupant of that slot is a volunteer, rarely asks for pay and hence does not keep track of her hours. As he himself is not interested in doing that paperwork he would like to maintain the line item or add some of his salary to it in case the current arrangement does not continue. The selectmen suggested that creating a requested inventory might be a good way to pay the assistant.

This latter comment devolved into a discussion about the annual fire department warrant articles to replace self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and air bottles. Chief Baker indicated that the department has 14 SCBA units, two air bottles per unit plus 2 spare bottles. The bottles have a shelf life of 15 years (by regulation). The ages of the bottles are already staggered and the expiration date is stamped into each bottle. He argued that committing those details to paper was just busy work for him (our paraphrase) and wasn’t going to change the facts on the ground.

An equally illuminating conversation about the status of the ongoing fire department member physicals and hepatitis B vaccinations followed. Selectman Lavoie indicated she got her vaccination for free at Walmart under her health plan. Or could the town health officer provide said vaccinations (a curmudgeon in the audience pointed out that the flu shot program previously run by the town nurse was shut down by the selectmen because of liability concerns)? Perhaps the fire department could look at other options? Being a former 20 year veteran of the department we just bit our tongue. More hoops to jump through to just to volunteer is probably not going to end well. We can’t help but think that a previous issue has still not been solved.

Mr. Alford indicated he has level 3 firefighting experience and would be happy to assist with any inventories.

The minutes for the prior budget hearing are now posted here, but we warn you that reading them for information is a little like watching sausage being made. You don’t really want to know what goes into it.

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