BERLIN — Taking what Mayor Paul Grenier described as a “leap of faith,” the city council Monday night approved a fiscal 2020 budget that restores all the public safety and public works positions cut because of the uncertainty over state education funding.
“It’s a leap of faith that the Legislature and governor can come together and fund education the way it’s suppose to be funded,” said Grenier.
Trusting that the state will restore education stabilization aid, the council restored over $1 million in cuts and will avoid layoffs. The body approved a general fund budget of $33.89 million, an increase of $1.07 million or 3 percent over the current budget. City Manager James Wheeler estimated the approved budget will result in a 25-cent increase in the property tax rate for a projected rate of $39.52.
Most department budgets show little, if any increase, over current funding levels.
The approved police department budget is $3,285,302, up $55,792 over the 2019 budget. Police Chief Peter Morency said he will not have to lay off two officers and will be able to continue going after grants.
The fire department budget was approved at $2.2 million, an increase of $51,987 over the 2019 budget. Grenier said the department will also avoid laying off any personnel.
The Public Works budget is up $131,748 over its current budget and there will be no reduction in staffing. The capital budget includes money for some new equipment.
The Community Service Division, which includes welfare, health, the library, and recreation and parks, is up $9,640 for a 2020 budget of $747,802.
The council restored $329,054 to the school budget for a total school appropriation of $18.2 million, up $26,621 over the current budget. The school board said it would have to cut supplies and furniture as well as five positions. The district had already voted to close the Brown Elementary School.
School Board Chair Nicole Plourde said the board will continue to push the state to meet its obligation to fund an adequate education. She said she and Superintendent of Schools Corinne Cascadden were in Concord Tuesday to advocate for school funding.
The council also restored $78,029 in appropriations to 12 outside agencies, ranging from North Country Council to the chamber of commerce. Some of the appropriations, such as the $13,161 to Tri-County Community Action Program, are used by the agencies to attract additional funding.
With the state budget still being worked out, Grenier said the city felt comfortable using the numbers in the Senate version of the budget. Both the Senate and House budget bills restore state educational stabilization aid back to 2016 levels. Under the Senate the city would receive $1,017,069 in additional education funding in 2020 and $1,961,168 in 2021. The House budget is more generous, providing Berlin with an additional $1.3 million over the biennium.
The Senate bill also provides Berlin with $238,545 in revenue redistribution funds in 2020 and $477,091 in 2021. If appropriated, Wheeler said he would recommend using that money to reconstruct Hutchins Street from the East Mason Street Bridge to Chapman Industries.
Gov. Chris Sununu’s budget, however, does not include restoring the stabilization aid. Sununu told city officials last month that he does not support fully restoring the stabilization aid and wants to see it phased in.
Grenier predicted there will be a lot of political wrangling in Concord over the next few weeks as a legislative committee of conference puts together a compromise budget that the legislature and Sununu can approve. The current state budget expires June 30.
While confident that school stabilization funding will be restored in the final state budget, Grenier made it clear that the city will be cautious.
“I’m not signing any checks until the state signs our check,” he said.
Grenier said the city can revisit the budget if the funding does not come though — an advantage he noted the city form of government provides over a town.
While Grenier has enjoyed a good relationship with Sununu, he said he was disappointed that the governor is focused more on reducing business taxes than looking out for taxpayers and small business people.
He said reducing business taxes favors large national and international firms. Pushing more of the tax burden onto property tax payers hurts small businesses especially in property poor communities like Berlin.
“If he says he’s for business, he should be for all businesses,” Grenier said.
Considered the poorest community in the state, Berlin has $325,535 of property wealth per student compared to the state median average of $978,125, according to the policy group, “Reaching Higher NH.”