What Does “Overspending” Mean?

At Monday’s board of selectmen’s meeting, Gordon Hunt, a member of the budget committee, and the selectmen called into question something that Chris Sawyer wrote in the Granite State News.

Chris, who is running for budget committee, stated in response to a candidate questionnaire from the paper:

This past year the selectmen took $350,000 out of the undesignated fund balance to offset overspending.

Gordon, quoting from the minutes for the selectmen’s November 6, 2017, meeting, said, “the selectmen took $350,000 from the unexpended fund balance to reduce taxes for the upcoming year.“¹

He then quoted Chris’s candidate profile from the paper and asked, “Do I interpret that as being a mistake on the part of someone?”²

Selectman Chip Albee concurred, saying it was a “mistake on whoever-said-that’s part.” Bill Marcussen chimed in, “yup.”

But why would the tax rate need to be reduced in the upcoming year?

Because spending is up. Every year the operating budget increases, in recent years by 5-10%. This year the proposed budget is increasing spending by 4%, although the amount to be raised by taxes is increasing by almost 12%.

Gordon and Bill stated in yesterday’s meeting that by law the selectmen cannot spend more than the total budget amount, therefore they cannot “overspend.” This is a word game. Chris did not write that the selectmen had overspent the budget. She stated they used the $350,000 (raised from taxes in previous years) “to offset overspending.”

Many people in town believe that we spend too much money, that we overspend. Many others in town disagree and would like to spend even more.

This is a difference of opinion. 

We have an election next week on Tuesday, March 13.

If you would like independent thinkers who won’t automatically vote for every spending increase proposed by the selectmen, then please vote for Chris and Barry Ennis.

1. The terms “unexpended,” “unassigned,” and “undesignated” are all used interchangeably to describe funds that are left over in town’s bank account. The fund balance accumulates when money that is appropriated for a given year is not expended. For instance, if a department has a budget of $100,000 for the year but spends $95,000. In that case, $5,000 is left over in the fund balance.

2. In keeping with an obsession with secrecy that pervades in town, Gordon did not use Chris’s name even though her statement was published publicly in the paper and can be read by anyone.

Selectmen, Budget Committee Propose 12% Increase in Taxes Raised

The selectmen and Budget Committee have proposed budgets this year that would increase the “amount of taxes to be raised” by approximately 12% on the local part of our tax bill (not including state and county taxes), compared to last year. Continue reading “Selectmen, Budget Committee Propose 12% Increase in Taxes Raised”

Budget Information (2018)

The selectmen proposed an operating budget of $3,742,305.24. The budget committee proposed $3,742,055.24. The budget committee’s proposed budget is what will be voted on at Town Meeting on March 14, at 7:30PM.

The following documents may help you assess the proposed budget:

In addition, you may find the Planning Board’s Master Survey quite useful. The survey was sent to 2,133 households, and 1,076 were returned. The results are here: Master Plan Survey.

Here are a few charts from the survey:

Per Employee Health Costs Revealed

Tuftonboro taxpayers spend an average of $20,156.43 per employee on health benefits, according to a spread sheet provided to me by an anonymous source.

The selectmen have been refusing to disclose this public information for over a year. The selectmen first claimed that disclosing the health costs would be a violation of the federal HIPAA law. However, the New Hampshire Municipal Association, a group generally hostile to government transparency, advised the selectmen that in fact it was not a violation of HIPAA. The selectmen nevertheless continue to obstruct the public’s right to know, not to mention to impede the budget committee’s ability to draft a budget.

The selectmen even sent the budget committee a budget for Personnel Administration that contained false information. In this PDF of the Personnel Administration budget, the column labeled “Total Comp” (i.e. Total Compensation) does not include the health costs, and is therefore inaccurate. It is not the “total compensation” for each employee. It is fraudulent.

What we spend on public employees is public information and the selectmen have no right to withhold that information from us.

Spending More Is Still Spending More

In their editorial on March 31, the editors of the Granite State News wrote of the county budget that it “included reducing the budget for the fishing expedition known as the forensic audit from $200,000 down to about $140,000 – still a waste of taxpayers’ money, but less of a waste.” I share the editors’ frustration when it comes to wasting taxpayer money.

In a previous letter to the Grunter, I wrote about budget maneuvers by which legislators raise spending less than they had initially intended and then claim it as a “cut.” This is a perfect example. The county did not cut spending on the forensic audit from $200,000 to $140,000. Let me repeat that: The county is not cutting spending on this. It is not a cut. The county will be spending $140,000 on a budget line that did not exist in the previous budget. That, my friends, is a spending increase.

Say I go to buy a new car. The dealer shows me a new Mustang for $50,000. Then he shows me a used Chevy S10 for $4,000. I want the Mustang. But I can afford the S10, so I buy that. Did I cut $46,000 from my car budget?

When you increase spending less than you had originally planned (or than you wanted), you are still increasing spending.

The 2016 Budget

The two letters to the editor of the Granite State News written recently by Tuftonboro budget committee member Tyler Phillips are illuminating. The proposed 2016 budget is 9.2% (that is, $297,141) larger than the 2015 actual spending. Of that increase, 74% (or $219,884) is for increased salaries and benefits, which Philips says represents a 15% increase over 2015 for that category. I understand that the 15% increase is spread out among the town employees, and that each employee is not receiving a 15% increase individually. However, a 15% increase in spending on any category in the budget would be a lot, so I disagree with Phillips’s colleague on the budget committee, Helen Hartshorn, who wrote on February 25th in this space that the budget is “not extravagant.”

I do think that a 9.2% overall increase in spending, and 15% increase for employee compensation, is extravagant. That doesn’t mean I think our town employees shouldn’t get raises — if they deserve raises and if we have the resources, that is. And all of us who are property-tax payers here in Tuftonboro should keep this in mind: These are our employees. They work for us. We are their employers. So we have a responsibility to understand the numbers. We can’t approve a 15% increase ($219,884 per year) in spending on employee salaries without knowing what we’re paying our employees in the first place.

Phillips tells us that Hartshorn has made some “terrific” graphs showing the difference in spending year over year, but that we won’t get to look at them until Town Meeting. How can we make an informed decision about the budget based on last-minute glances at out-of-context numbers on a graph? That is not the way to make a decision.

Public-employee compensation is public information as established in New Hampshire law (RSA-91) and upheld by the Supreme Court of New Hampshire (Mans v. Lebanon School Board, 112 N.H. 160, 164 (1972)). On Monday I went to the Town Office and obtained the 2016 proposed employee compensation information. You may view it for yourself here:https://goo.gl/H427UF. You can also get the town report from the Town Office, which details current spending on town employee compensation as well as the proposed spending increases.

I have written previously of my admiration for Clay Gallagher’s stewardship of the transfer station. I continue to think he does a great job. We paid him $48,631.14 in base salary last year, and the 2016 budget proposes raises his base salary to $51,568.00. Under the proposed budget, total spending on compensation for Gallagher would be $67,451 (including health costs and employer taxes). I don’t think that’s extravagant, in and of itself. If the taxpayers think the employees truly do deserve, collectively, $219,884 in raises, then let’s cut $219,884 from somewhere else in the budget. For instance, why are they adding $3,000 for “Blue Loon Bus Service”? Do we need to start sending the American Red Cross $1,093? Why do the Selectmen want to appropriate $45,000, and the Budget Committee want to appropriate $35,000 for Direct Assistance (item 4442) when we spent just $4,890.29 on that item in 2015? We all want to be compassionate towards people who are in need, but why the huge increase? It’s easy to be compassionate with other people’s money. But as Margaret Thatcher said, eventually you run out of other people’s money. We can all make individual contributions to the Red Cross if we want. We don’t have to spend each other’s money.

I will be voting against the budget. I hope you will join me. Let’s send the budget back to the selectmen, as Phillips recommends, so that they can trim it down.