Friday, January 19, 2007
FY08 salaries will squeeze health programs, says BOH
Facing its first night of budget reviews for Fiscal Year 2008, the Finance Committee (FinCom) on January 9 received resistance at the starting gate on its 2.9% guideline increase issued in the fall. Martha Bedrosian, chair of the Board of Health (BOH), challenged priorities that allow substantial salary increases for some town employees while chipping away at departmental programs. She noted that if the current guideline budget of $77,491 stands, flu clinics, health education and other BOH services will have to be cut back.
"We have an increasing [town] population needing increased services, and a declining part of the budget to deal with that," Bedrosian summarized. The budget is squeezed by the concurrence of step increases for the BOH agent and administrative assistant, and a need to increase the assistant's hours to keep up with the workload. These salary items will add $4,500 to a budget which is only allowed an increase over FY07 of $2,200. To meet the guideline, other items will have to go.
More requirements, more hours
The BOH needs to add administra-tive hours because permitting and emergency preparedness work has expanded. The current 15 hours, of which ten are allocated to the operating account and five to a revolving fund, will be increased to 19 hours per week, of which 11 will come from the operating account.
The number of land use permits has increased 25% in three years, and the popularity of alternative septic technologies means many of these applications are more complex and time-consuming. New developments at Coventry Woods and the 35-lot Wilkins Hill off Westford Road are expected to come forward in FY07 or FY08, and will require BOH review.
In the area of emergency preparedness, meetings, certification classes and expanded planning are all added requirements of the Mass. Department of Health and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Disease control and incident reporting for West Nile, Lyme, and rabies are also significant demands.
In addition, the BOH hopes to continue programs that enhance public health. A flu clinic for seniors and health workers, a public health fair, and a new baby event held this year were quite successful. The board would like to add a flu clinic for all residents.
Fees maxed out
The FinCom's Dave Model suggested increasing fees to reflect rising costs. The BOH collects fees for its permitting and inspection services that are deposited into a revolving fund to offset certain costs. "The true cost should be fully absorbed," said Model, including benefits and supplies. But Bedrosian noted the laws governing these types of revolving funds do not allow the assignment of overhead. In addition, Carlisle's fees have recently been raised and direct costs assigned where possible. "We're trying," said Bedrosian. "Nobody wants taxes to go up, believe me."
Bedrosian requested that step increases, which reward employees for longevity, be considered outside the departmental budget, as they had been in previous years. But the FinCom had already decided to assign the full cost of salaries to departments to better reflect the cost of business.
Program cuts "nickel and diming"
Chair Thornton Ash suggested cutting one program from the BOH budget rather than slicing at several. "If you need more money, cut the least important thing. Then ask us to add it." For example, flu clinics could be cut now and offered as part of an override at Town Meeting. But Bedrosian responded, "I feel passionate about this. We're nickel and diming five or six hundred dollars for public health for the town. That's sad." She then pointed to "handsome salary increases" for the Town Administrator, teachers, and other employees and said, "non-salary costs are squeezed because salaries are up."
Ash noted the FinCom has almost no input into salary negotiations, but must make the budgets work with the salary numbers as contracted by the Board of Selectmen or School Committee. Model expanded on that point, "All we can do is be as accurate as possible in our portrayal to the voters" and it's up to them to push back by voting down overrides if they believe salary contracts are too generous." "If we have to give up public health education, the voter should know that," added FinCom member Barbara Bjornson.
Bedrosian declined to put in a request for an incremental budget amount for cut programs, "I wouldn't vote for an override. We can't keep up with the Joneses. It's not that kind of town." Bill Rizzo of the BOH softened that stance, requesting the salary step increases be considered as incremental budget items. Model then suggested that the BOH look into creating a "Friends of the Board of Health" similar to other fundraising organizations in town. "We need it," he added.
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