PARIS — Town Manager Vic Hodgkins asked selectmen to consider whether they wanted to use more than $200,000 in surplus to invest into town assets or have it offset some of the annual fiscal ’18 SAD 17 bill.
This question led to a sometimes heated discussion at the Monday, March 27 meeting regarding how the excess money should be used.
Selectboard Vice Chairman Scott Buffington said just because the town has a surplus doesn’t mean selectmen have to find something to spend it on.
“Any time there is a surplus all that means is at some point the taxpayers in this town have overpaid on their tax bill,” he said.
Buffington said it should go back to the taxpayers as “a one-time pay down to the ever-growing school budget.”
In an email, Hodgkins said selectmen recently updated the Unassigned Fund Balance Policy, which advises the town to maintain 12 to 15 percent in unassigned surplus. The town exceeded the recommended 15 percent and currently has $217,787 in surplus.
“Unassigned Surplus represents a current balance of unspent dollars from previous operational budgets that are not subject to carryforward. Unassigned Surplus is created as a result of actual spending that was less than budgeted, and/or actual revenue that exceeded budget forecast,” he said.
At the meeting, Selectman Kathy Richardson said there was value on either side of the argument – by using the money to lower the mil rate or spending it on something.
Selectman Chris Summers, Richardson and Selectboard Chair Janet Jamison expressed concern regarding road conditions in Paris.
“I agree with Chris, we have to have infrastructure with roads but this amount of money doesn’t make a huge impact with it,” Buffington said.
“No but every dollar counts,” Summers responded.
Jamison asked how much the town had for roads. The current roads budget began with $480,000 and roughly $100,000 should be carried forward to fiscal 2018, Hodgkins said. On average, the town spends around $500,000 annually for road work.
Buffington said with those figures, there’s merit in discussing a road bond. Hodgkins agreed but also said the bond is something onto itself.
Hodgkins advocated for protecting the town and not spending the surplus money “for a candy sugar rush to pay down the school bill, which is here today gone tomorrow.”
“I don’t care what you spend those dollars on or what you save them for as long as it is a direct benefit for the Paris taxpayer,” Hodgkins said.
Jamison noted the surplus isn’t even equivalent to one month’s payment to SAD 17, which is just shy of $247,000.
“I don’t see any advantage with paying the school [bill],” Summers said, adding he’d prefer to put the money towards the roads.
Buffington said the municipal budgeting process was backwards by looking at a wish list and figuring out how many tax dollars are needed to cover the list.
“What is our target point? Where do we need to be to be a viable town that people want to come live in, play in?” he asked. “Every year those numbers need to work and … just because we have a one-time shot of money doesn’t mean we should buy something for the town.”
Jamison said she “doesn’t see it that way at all.”
“Well I know because you’re in the old thinking,” Buffington said to Jamison.
“Really?” Jamison responded.
“You think about, ‘Let’s just keep doing things the way we’ve been doing it, we’ll just trudge along the way we’ve always done it,’ and nothing ever changes,” he said.
“If we didn’t spend every last damn penny that was in the budget, why shouldn’t we buy something for the town?” Jamison said. “It feels good for everybody else if we can say, ‘Look we were able to do more roads, we were able to buy a new plow truck instead of saving up for two or three or four years.’”
“When we work our budgets they have to be ongoing and sustainable,” Buffington said, adding the capital accounts need to be built up over a period of time. “That’s the responsible way to manage taxpayers’ dollars.”
He reiterated he would lower the mil rate and not buy anything, such as a bucket loader Hodgkins mentioned at the last meeting.
“The first time I heard about the bucket loader is when we realized we had extra money,” Buffington said.
“In fairness I was just using that as a simple example,” Hodgkins said, adding Highway Director Jamie Hutchinson would provide the cost to fix the 1993 piece of machinery.
“I think it’s time [to] say, ‘The town can no longer afford to pay down the school bill,’” Hodgkins said, noting the town needs to take care of its own.
“Is that what we were saying over the last five years when the … property taxes … for many people doubled? Is that what we were saying, ‘We’re taking care of our own?’ Forcing elderly people out of their homes because they can’t afford to pay their property taxes?” Buffington asked.
“We had tax relief last year. … If we can offer that same thing again that would be great, or a flat tax,” Buffington added. “The school is rising for everybody – everyone has to swallow that pill.”
Hodgkins countered that according to preliminary budget discussions with SAD 17 officials, “one or two towns will be saving money while everyone else’s bills go up.”
The school district’s fiscal ’18 budget is still preliminary.
Hodgkins acknowledged SAD 17 officials have their own challenges and he’s not attacking the district.
“But you know what, we’re the ones who have to send out the tax bills on their behalf,” he continued. “Those phone calls that start coming in August, those who come in irate, I want them irate with the right entity, not at the town of Paris.”
Buffington said the town puts its tax dollars in the wrong place.
“I don’t see a lot of frivolities, I gotta tell you,” Jamison commented.
“Thank you for standing up for us, Scott,” Planning Board and Budget Committee member Rick Little said to Buffington. “Nobody else is.”
“I think it’s sad we’re using the buzz word of the school,” he added, noting this only happens around budget time. “Harrison has been paying as much for half as many students as Paris paid. Is that fair to Harrison? No it’s not.”
Selectmen decided not to take any action on the surplus last week and agreed to continue the discussion at another meeting.