SEABROOK — The proposed town budget became a major topic of conversation at Tuesday night’s Deliberative Town Meeting Session.
More than 70 people turned out at the Deliberative Session to question and debate the 41 questions on this year’s annual warrant. Seabrook adheres to the state law that allows voters to make their final decisions on questions in the annual Town Warrant by secret ballot at spring elections. But prior to heading to the polls to do that, Town Meeting comes together in its Deliberative Session, allowing voters to debate each warrant article, and make changes.
One of the articles that drew the most debate was the proposed town operating budget. Originally appearing at $20,324,857, a more than 8 percent increase over last year’s budget, voters cut it by more than $104,000.
The first cut of $17,383 was the result of an accounting error in the library budget, officials said, and the cut drew little controversy. But the second motion to cut the budget by $87,121 came from Budget Committee chairwoman Paula Wood with a specific purpose.
Wood proposed the cut be taken from the line item that funds the health insurance benefits for the three members of the Board of Selectmen, Aboul Khan, Ed Hess and Ray Smith. Her proposed reduction zeroed-out the line item.
“I’ve sat on the Budget Committee for 20 years and hear how tight we have to pull the belt,” Wood said. “We know there’s a lot to do ... and we got kicked in the butt with (an) insurance (increase). To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only town in the state of New Hampshire who pays selectmen full benefits. They’re at the top and should set an example.”
The selectmen themselves were quiet on the Wood’s motion, which passed by a significant margin.
The result of both reductions lowered the proposed budget to $20,220,353. If voters still don’t like that, a default budget of $20,220,230 will automatically take effect,
Seabrook Budget Committee member and Beach Village District commissioner Richard Maguire rose to warn residents of the expensive trend set in recent budget years. Since 2008, Maguire said, the budget has risen by nearly 32 percent, while the cost of living increases approved by the federal government for Social Security recipients during the same period has gone up only 15 percent.
“The rate of growth in the town of Seabrook is unsustainable,” Maguire told officials in charge of the town’s financial matters.
Khan challenged Maguire, saying until and unless townspeople are willing to cut the level of services they enjoy in Seabrook, the budget will continue to rise. If townsfolk tell selectmen they’re willing to accept a transfer station that’s open only three days a week instead of seven, have a police department that closes at 10 p.m. every night, or a fire department that doesn’t offer the services it does, then selectmen can trim services. That will mean layoffs, he said, as well as some unhappy residents.
Khan said a nasty snowstorm was forecast, but townspeople know that when they wake, Seabrook’s public works crews, plows and sanders will be out clearing the roads until safe. All that costs money, he said.
Seabrook, a town of about 9,000, offers significant services to residents. They include free weekly garbage pickup — twice weekly in the beach district during the summer; a full-time fire department that mans three ambulances; a staffed police department open 24/7; and a fully programmed and equipped recreation department; a transfer station open every day; town sewer and water with low rates; and a fully staffed DPW that cares for town roads, parks, beaches and cemeteries. All of that requires about 150 town employees.
Seabrook’s unprecedented budget hike this year is deceptive, town officials said, for the roughly $1.6 million increase over last year is mostly due to contractual issues over which officials have no control. Specifically, they relate to a more than 20 percent increase in employee heath care benefits, as well as raises due to employee union contracts that voters OK’d in previous elections.
According to Hess, other than that, budget spending rose only 1 percent.
Should voters pass the budget, it is estimated to equal about $7.88 per thousand on the tax rate. That’s without the cost of any of the other $2.2 million in requests among the other warrant questions.
Seabrook’s tax rate also includes funding for its schools, as well the county tax and the state-wide education property tax. This year, registered voters will head to the polls on Tuesday, March 11, to vote at the Community/Recreation Center. The polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters are reminded they must present a picture ID at the polls to cast their ballots.
Those who have not yet registered to vote may do so at the town clerk’s office at Town Hall, or they may register at the polls on election day. A picture ID along with proof of age and residency is required when registering to vote.