ORR, Town Asked to Divide $600,000 in Cuts

            The Rochester Finance Committee made significant headway on Monday night in its effort to achieve the town’s half of $600,000 in requested FY25 budget trims, the other half to be made by the Old Rochester Regional School District.

            The committee was not able to nail down the $300,000 in cuts that it seeks, in part because Finance Director Suzanne Szyndlar was unable to attend the meeting. Finance Committee Chairman Kris Stoltenberg has been discussing revenue assumptions for the FY25 Budget with Szyndlar, but some of the details of departmental budget discussions still need clarification.

            “We have been out of whack almost every year, but it’s never been quite that dramatic,” said Stoltenberg of the $600,000 correction prescribed by the committee. “Suzanne has the numbers and they’re pretty hard numbers. Then we fix the budget. She’s done as much as she can on the assumption side for the revenue, so now we work with the departments.”

            On the ORR side of the equation, Town Administrator Glenn Cannon said that the school district, which also includes Marion and Mattapoisett, has already made some recommendations but has yet to “come to the ($300,000) target, so it’s something they’re still working on.”

            According to a Wanderer report on the March 11 public meeting, Rochester Memorial School’s FY25 operating budget proposal represents a 6.63% increase over FY24, and ORR’s proposal represents a 4.84 increase. According to the report, Rochester is sending five fewer students to ORR this fiscal year.

            Stoltenberg was reportedly met with dismay upon letting ORR officials know there is still work to be done to the tune of $300,000.

            “They were a little shocked and surprised at what we were looking for,” said Stoltenberg, acknowledging that, “in the end, we’re part of the Tri-Town community. Any mismatch, we have to look at (Rochester Memorial School). It wasn’t a great experience because they were kind of downtrodden when we left that meeting.”

            During the ORR District’s budget presentations to the school committees, level services have been emphasized.

            The Finance Committee needs to have the FY25 budget ready for the Select Board’s approval by mid-April. The Annual Town Meeting in all three of the Tri-Towns is scheduled for Monday, May 13.

            On Monday, the Finance Committee verified plans for FY25 budget cuts with the Police, Fire and Highway departments.

            The most complex of issues brought to the committee by a department head on Monday was Fire Chief Scott Weigel’s plan for a 5%, across-the-board net increase in wages for his employees, who are all part-time workers on a call basis. His department request is variable, based on 5% minus the town’s cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

            Cannon confirmed that the Select Board last week voted to approve a 2.5% COLA for FY25, but he said the board could still alter that number before the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting is finalized. A 2.5% COLA would mean that Weigel wants a 2.5% in-department increase to achieve a net 5% increase.

            Weigel explained that as it currently stands, a part-time firefighter can earn $31 or $32 per hour in surrounding towns as opposed to $26 per hour in Rochester.

            “We’re trying to be competitive; you have to be competitive in order to keep people,” he said. “We’re trying a dollar and change (increase) just so I can be competitive and keep people we have. I’m just trying to be in line with everybody else.”

            Stoltenberg told Weigel he will follow up on the matter with Szyndlar with the understanding that no agreement has been made.

            Weigel’s most significant cut ($23,229.44) was a request for a part-time, daytime firefighter to work on Saturdays and Sundays. He confirmed other FY25 departmental budget cuts, including approximately $9,000 related to the red-alert mobile dispatch (computer system), $4,908 in EMS-related equipment maintenance, oil heat ($1,000), medical services ($1,000) and other areas totaling $42,071.44.

            “We asked the chief to cut $40,000 from his budget so he exceeded (the request),” said Cannon.

            Highway Surveyor Jeff Eldridge confirmed plans to cut to forestry and snow/ice-removal areas. He also canceled several requests to bring his budget back to FY24 levels. He had requested a full-time mechanic in FY24 ($62,000); that request was cut before it reached voters, and plans to add it this year were scrapped.

            Eldridge indicated that a $5,000 cut from a $20,000 request for the replacement of equipment and a $17,000 cut in snow/ice treatment may steer him toward the Capital Planning Committee.

            Stoltenberg suspects that a canceled $79,000 request from the Police Department for a replacement vehicle will succeed as a capital item.

            Other departments helping reach the $300,000 goal include the town clerk (removing a request in clerical hours from 12 to eight, a $3,408 cut); Planning (removing $500 clerical and $300 cleaning costs); Town Building (down $10,000 – Cannon said that Facilities Manager Andrew Daniel is in the loop); Health (insurance was overbudgeted, according to Stoltenberg, a $46,000 cut, and $10,500 more after a plan to increase administrative hours was scrapped).

            Stoltenberg said that with Monday’s agreements, the bottom line adds up to $275,358 in FY25 budget cuts. He didn’t necessarily consider the figure to be short of the goal, considering there is still work ahead in finalizing revenue estimates and ironing out details. The exact shortfall is not known.

            A much larger matter is the question of how much of the $300,000 to be cut from the schools budget will affect Rochester Memorial School as opposed to Rochester’s share of the ORR Junior or Senior High School budgets.

            The next meeting of the Rochester Finance Committee will be scheduled for Monday, April 1, at 7:00 pm at Town Hall, 1 Constitution Way.

Rochester Finance Committee

By Mick Colageo

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