CHATHAM–So many village residents arrived at the Tracy Memorial Tuesday night to attend a special budget hearing that the board was forced to move the meeting upstairs to the spacious courtroom.
The crowd of over 30 turned out to debate the proposed $1,285,340 village budget, a 12% increase from last year’s spending plan. Over and over again residents asked the Mayor Paul Boehme where the board had made cuts to save taxpayers money. Board members said the village had cut one worker in the Department of Public Works, but they did not mention any other specific staff reductions or other cuts.
(The Chatham Village Board met again Thursday, May 13, before and even larger crowd, and released a revised budget that would increase spending by over 8%. The reaction by the people who spoke Thursday remained critical of the proposed budget, with more than half a dozen people calling for a smaller expenditure for police. The board adjourned without voting on the budget, though board members agreed informally that they would have to adopt a spending plan at their next meeting May 27. In the meantime, Mayor Paul Boehme said he and board members would seek to find additional cuts.)
At the May 11 meeting Mr. Boehme said there were lots of minor increases in the budget that added up, and the village was hit with large increases in employee benefits payments mandated by the state. Those costs almost doubled from last year, he said.
David O’Connor, a village resident and member of the Chatham School Board, pointed out to village trustees that county school boards are cutting staff and freezing retirement benefits. “A double digit [tax increase] is way above what any of us can afford.”
Other residents asked about the number of people the village employs. “When I added up the benefits for village employees, it came to $208,000,” said village resident Georgene Gardner of the proposed budget.
The discussion repeatedly returned to the cost of the four full-time DPW workers and four full-time police officers. Michael Richardson, who described himself as a new village resident, said he works with municipalities all around the state as a consultant on budget and labor issues. In his experience, “there is no way your public works can justify four workers,” he said.
But board members said the DPW workers served multiple roles, and some were certified to oversee the water and sewer systems as required by the state.
Mr. Richardson volunteered to advise the village without charge about contract negotiations and other budget items, with an eye toward savings not presently in the proposed budget. He told the board that many municipalities in the state are facing the same financial challenges but that they are making deep cuts. He advised the trustees to “explore what the alternatives are by looking at what others are doing.”
Looking at ways to cut, village resident Rusty Vazac said, “The elephant in the room is the police,” a department that the budget proposal puts at $278,183 for personal services.
“We have to cut somewhere,” said Mr. Vazac, who described being stopped for a broken headlight by two Chatham police officers in separate police cars. He did not question why he had been pulled over, but focused instead on why it required two officers and two cars. “It’s out of control,” he said.
“I worked very hard keeping this budget where it is,” said the mayor. “There is not a lot of frill in this budget at all.” He said the trustees planned to vote to adopt the budget at the board’s regular meeting scheduled for Thursday.
After hearing from many in the audience about their dissatisfaction with the budget, Mr. Boehme said he would get in touch with the village attorney and the council of mayors to see whether the village could extend the deadline for adopting the budget. But the mayor did not say whether the board would hold another public hearing on the proposal.
“I’d love to see you at our board meetings,” said Trustee Lael Locke at the conclusion of the meeting. “I hope we can work together in the future.”
The board meeting Thursday, May 13, is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.