RICHMOND — Nearly every budget article provoked a debate at Richmond’s Town Meeting on Tuesday, as residents argued in some cases that the town has too many employees, said in other cases that employees are underpaid and even revisited past decisions, such as the construction of the library building that is soon to open.
The budget as recommended by the Board of Selectmen prior to the meeting would raise municipal spending by about 7 percent and taxes by close to 50 percent per $1,000 in taxable valuation.
More than half the budget increase is in the capital outlay account, which would pay for capital improvements including paving. The $90,000 paving budget, up from $40,000, would pay for improvements to roads including Langdon Road, Brown Road and Lincoln Street.
During the five-hour Town Meeting, several residents said Richmond is spending too much.
“If we don’t start cutting the spending in this town, both the school and the town, I’m going to be on this list of people who can’t pay their taxes,” Mark Carter said. “Where we decide to cut, I don’t care; but we can’t keep going the way we’re going.”
Alice Knapp said the town is paying too much for a town manager compared to towns of comparable size.
Mike Grizkewitsch Jr. questioned the selectmen’s hiring of a new full-time Town Office employee earlier this year, when the office rarely seems busy.
Clarence Cummins, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the hire returned the number of Town Office employees to what it was a couple of years ago, before an employee left. After that, the selectmen tried having one person work half time as code enforcement officer and half time as deputy clerk, but Cummins said it didn’t work.
“When we had one person trying to cover two, neither job was being done well,” Cummins said.
Grizkewitsch made an amendment, which succeeded on a count of votes by hand, to reduce the article for administration by $30,000, or the salary of a full-time employee in the Town Office, whichever is greater. The article was approved as amended, with only a handful of votes in opposition.
The amount to be spent on benefits will be reduced accordingly. Town Manager Marian Anderson said she could not immediately say how much the reduction will be.
Some residents also asked whether the Public Works Department and the Richmond Police Department have too many employees, given the size of the town, but the appropriations for those departments were approved without being changed.
Voters approved the selectmen’s recommendation for the Richmond Fire Department appropriation, which was $2,000 higher than the Budget Committee’s recommendation. The Budget Committee had supported eliminating the stipend for the position of assistant fire chief.
Paul Adams, a former firefighter, spoke in favor of the three-tier leadership structure of the department. He said if there are times when the fire chief is on vacation and the deputy chief has to work, for example, the assistant chief is still there to lead the department.
Voters also went with the selectmen’s recommendation for the public safety account. The Budget Committee had recommended a figure $1,000 lower by cutting the stipend for the emergency management director because they thought if there is to be an assistant fire chief, that person should fill the role of emergency management director.
In the debate on other articles, residents said some employees should be paid more, but there were no amendments proposed for the appropriations.
Knapp said she doesn’t understand why the librarian is paid $12 per hour, when employees in other departments make considerably more.
The director of Golden Oldies Senior Center is paid to work 15 hours a week, but she works considerably more than that and deserves a raise, Pat Hanrahan said.
There was extensive debate about funding the Summer Recreation program, which served 63 children last year in activities three days a week for five weeks. The program includes swimming lessons and field trips, and it partners with another organization to serve summer meals to any child in Richmond.
Ryan Shea proposed eliminating the entire $22,290 appropriation and combining the program with the Richmond Youth Recreation Association, which runs on volunteer time and donations. The amendment failed.
There were also amendments that failed to spend less than recommended on the library, police and docks.
Several expenditures that were approved as presented on the warrant garnered objections from residents.
Tom Nugent, for example, said it seems too luxurious to spend $266,492 on benefits, which is equivalent to more than one-third of the amount the town spends on wages.
Anderson said the selectboard has achieved significant concessions from employees in recent years and will continue to search for ways to save money on health insurance as that market changes. Anderson said the 6 percent in the cost of benefits this year is due largely to the fact that more employees are choosing to get their health insurance through the town.
Voters authorized the selectmen to enter an agreement with Gardiner, Bowdoinham and Topsham for the planning, construction and maintenance of the Merrymeeting Trail, which would connect all those municipalities. If all the municipalities approve the agreement, they would appoint members to form a board of supervisors.
Some residents were concerned that entering the agreement would commit Richmond to spend potentially large sums years down the road, but the article was amended to clarify that spending would have to be approved at future Town Meetings.
Nugent said he believes the trail can be a point of pride for Richmond and could help restaurants or other businesses if people using the trail stop in Richmond.
Finally, the voters authorized the selectmen to lease the former church building of St. Matthias Episcopal Church to the Richmond Area Food Pantry for $1 per year, for up to 10 years. At the end of that period, the town may sell or give the building to the food pantry.
The food pantry pays for its own utilities. Anderson said town and food pantry officials are discussing reponsibility for maintenance and other expenses.