The central issues at a March 21 meeting of the Damariscotta Board of Selectmen and the Damariscotta Budget Committee – employee compensation and police staffing – are familiar.
Last year, Damariscotta employees did not receive a pay increase.
Former Damariscotta Town Manager Greg Zinser recommended a two percent cost of living increase. The selectmen and the budget committee, however, overruled his recommendation and voters, at the annual town meeting, passed a pay increase-free budget.
Also in 2011, citizens and officials debated at length the staffing levels of the Damariscotta Police Department.
The 2012 budget season started in earnest Wednesday with largely identical issues.
Damariscotta Town Manager Matt Lutkus recommended a three percent increase for non-contract employees. He described the increase as consistent with inflation per the Consumer Price Index for the Northeast United States.
Selectman Josh Pinkham moved to cut the increase to two percent. The motion failed, 3-2, with Selectman Vicki Pinkham joining Josh Pinkham in support of the smaller adjustment.
The boards batted around several proposals, including a merit system, a mix of cost of living and merit increases and a cost of living increase based on the cost of living adjustment (COLA) instead of the Consumer Price Index.
Ultimately, however, they decided to table the question of pay increases until they could gather more information.
After a short break for a public hearing, the meeting reconvened to consider the police department budget.
Damariscotta Police Chief Chad Andrews proposed a $538,746 budget, a $10,004 increase from the 2011-2012 budget. Lutkus, however, recommended a $506,127 budget, a decrease of $22,615.
A difference of opinion about when to hire a sergeant accounts for the discrepancy.
Andrews, the department’s former sergeant, became acting police chief in April 2011 and chief in September 2011.
His contract requires him to complete a probationary period to end June 30, the last day of the fiscal year. At that time, if Lutkus determines that Andrews has successfully completed the probationary period, the contract provides for a two-year extension.
The department sergeant is second-in-command to the chief, yet Andrews has led the department without a sergeant for almost a year, and will continue to do so until the end of the fiscal year.
Lutkus, at the direction of the selectmen, budgeted funds for the Maine Chiefs of Police Association to review police staffing levels. He said he wants the study to be complete before the town hires a sergeant.
Andrews said he would prefer not to go another summer without a sergeant.
Lutkus said the town might be able to move up the study. The selectmen are scheduled to resume discussion of the matter at their March 28 meeting.
The selectmen eventually passed Lutkus’s version of the budget, 4-1. Dave Wilbur cast the dissenting vote.
The budget committee recommended the manager’s version as well, 3-2, with Karen O’Bryan and Mary Trescot in opposition.
Elsewhere in the police department budget, Lutkus recommended a raise for reserve officers, from $11.25 to $13 per hour. Lutkus, according to a letter to the boards that summarizes the budget, based this recommendation “on a review of the wages paid for comparable positions in the county and in nearby service center communities.”
Wages for full-time officers depend on the outcome of negotiations with the union. Lutkus said he wants to have a contract in place before the annual town meeting.
The selectmen and the budget committee unanimously recommended many other facets of the budget with minimal debate.
The municipal budget, as recommended by Lutkus, totals approximately $2.6 million, an increase of slightly more than $26,000 or 1.02 percent. According to Lutkus, “current revenue projections from other sources” mean he is requesting a 1.84 percent increase in property taxes.
“Because we will not have final property tax projections until June, it is difficult to determine whether the recommended budget can be accomplished within the existing 13.95 mil rate,” Lutkus wrote in a letter to the boards.
Lutkus called his budget “very lean,” yet appropriate considering the state of the economy.
The approximately $1.2 million budget shows a decrease of $45,836 (3.66 percent) although Damariscotta only stands to save $24,609 on the tax bill due to the loss of federal and state funds.
The district expects Damariscotta to graduate 31 seniors this year, with only 19 freshmen to replace them. The drop in enrollment, consistent with similar declines across AOS 93, creates a savings of more than $135,000.
Increases in the special education, system administration and transportation budgets partially offset the savings.
The secondary education budget includes all expenses for students in grades 9-12. The Great Salt Bay School Committee reviews the K-8 budget in a separate process.
The selectmen and the budget committee unanimously recommended the secondary education budget.