HUDSON, N.H. -- Reducing the number of school crossing guards, leaving the Robinson Road fire station closed through June, not hiring a dispatcher, and furnishing the new senior center through donations are among the actions town department heads are recommending in response to Hudson voters passing a default budget March 11, Town Administrator Steve Malizia reported to selectmen.
In the board's first meeting since voters rejected the recommended town operating budget of $23,837,277 in favor of a default amount of $23,329,646, or $500,000 less than anticipated, Malizia presented financial reports from all town department heads explaining how they proposed to deal with the shortfall.
Selectmen Roger Coutu, Ben Nadeau, newly elected Patricia Nichols and Chairman Rick Maddox applauded the department heads and Malizia for proactively providing them with such a financial game-plan suggesting how to proceed. Selectman Nancy Brucker was absent due to illness, Maddox said.
Despite Hudson voters passing nearly all new contracts and pay raises for town and school employee that were requested on this year's ballot, a 59-vote majority chose to require town officials to stick with the default budget for the second straight year.
The town's four largest departments, police, fire, highway, and recreation will bear the brunt of the $500,000 reduction, Malizia noted.
As part of the Recreation Department, under the default budget the Council on Aging is being forced to absorb a $63,500 budget reduction that would have been spent on furnishing its soon-to-open Hudson Senior Center at Benson Park. Instead, since the election Senior Services Coordinator Lori Bowen, Recreation Director Dave Yates and other key figures have made arrangements to have that amount donated to the organization to cover , Malizia reported.
Coutu praised Hudson's seniors, including Nichols, for having not only contributed a large amount to the construction of the building, but for finding a way to outfit and furnish the facility as well.
In response to the police department's $83,000 hit, Police Chief Jason Lavoie has suggested that he will reduce the number of school crossing guards, not hire a dispatcher, and put the purchase of some new security switches on hold, Malizia said.
Fire Chief Robert Buxton, who attended last week's meeting, said with the selectmen's approval he will leave the Robinson Road fire station unmanned through June for a savings of $35,000.
As another cost-saving measure, Buxton said he will hold off on hiring of three new firefighter recruits until after the next fiscal year begins in July.
Among the hidden consequences of cutting anticipated operating expenses by a half-million dollars, the town's $25,000 legal defense fund allotment is wiped out in the default budget, Malizia informed the board.
The legal fund is needed to hire lawyers and assessing experts who can defend the town's taxpayers in court against suits that are frequently brought by lawyers, working on contingency for Hudson's largest commercial and industrial property owners, who regularly claim that their clients are being overtaxed, Malizia explained.
"If a major property owner challenges a $3 million tax bill and we don't show up in court to defend it, then their taxes may get lowered to $2 million, and we have to raise everyone else's taxes to make up for it," said Malizia, in highlighting the fund's importance.
"Right now there's an equity and balance in town of about a 65-percent tax burden on residents, 35 percent on commercial/industrial," he added. "It's not that we're picking on the commercial folks, but they have the deepest pockets to sue the town, and potentially tip that scale to place more of a burden on residents."
Coutu indicated the board will make it a priority to find money elsewhere in the default budget to restore the legal fund and protect the town against such tax-abatement lawsuits.
Malizia recommended to selectmen that they continue working with department heads to find ways to live within the default budget and reduce expenses by $500,000, rather than going with option B, calling for a special election to put the originally recommended budget before the voters again sometime in June.
Going that route would require the Budget Committee and selectmen to schedule public hearings, followed by another Town Deliberative Session, then a special election, which would cost an estimated $3,000, the town administrator said.
"I wouldn't go to war and put these back on another ballot," Malizia said.
Selectmen held off on voting on the department heads' proposed reductions to meet the default budget, pending further discussions over the next several weeks, Maddox said.
"We have to figure out how to make all of this work. We have to decide what we are willing to accept to get to that $500,000 in cuts," said Maddox.
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