Tackling the budget

The Keene City Council adopted an operating budget of $66,018,368 for next fiscal year Thursday night, which includes $25,000 for a downtown coordinator position.

The Keene City Council adopted an operating budget of $66,018,368 for next fiscal year Thursday night, $25,000 more than the budget recommended by the council’s finance, organization and personnel committee.

The additional funds reflect an amendment from At-Large Councilor George S. Hansel that will partially fund a downtown coordinator working under the Monadnock Economic Development Corp. According to Hansel, another $25,000 will be donated from downtown businesses.

The downtown coordinator position was one of three amendments considered at Thursday’s council meeting and the only one to pass. It did so on a vote of 8-5. Ward 1 Councilor Stephen L. Hooper and Ward 2 Councilor Carl B. Jacobs were absent.

A controversial request from At-Large Councilor Randy L. Filiault that the council withhold the $20,000 allocated in the operating budget for Hundred Nights Inc.’s cold-weather homeless shelter on Lamson Street failed, 9-4.

The proposal was perhaps the most contentious of the evening, with Filiault himself describing the issue as a political hornet’s nest.

Filiault’s proposed amendment sought to freeze city funding for the shelter, pending a review by city staff of the shelter’s finances and “residency statistics.” Filiault said he’s heard from city staff that people come to the shelter from outside the region and the state and wants a full accounting of the organization’s records.

“It’s taxpayer dollars,” Filiault said of the $20,000. “And when there’s questions about it … it’s the responsibility of the City Council to make sure that all the information is on the table.”

Melinda L. “Mindy” Cambiar, Hundred Nights’ executive director, told The Sentinel in May that the organization asks its guests four questions: the town or city they claim as their most recent residence; the town or city listed on their identification card; the last town or city in which they paid rent; and the last town or city where they lived for at least 90 days.

Keene is the most frequent answer to the first two questions, according to Cambiar, who said data from the other two are kept in a paper format and aren’t easily accessible in a compiled format.

But she said she can state with confidence that the majority of people who stay at Hundred Nights are from Cheshire County.

Some councilors expressed discomfort with the notion of withholding the funds based on information from unnamed city staff.

“This just feels so yucky to me,” Ward 1 Councilor Janis W. Manwaring said. “This feels really uncomfortable.”

At-Large Councilor Bettina A. Chadbourne echoed the sentiment, adding that the proposal felt like an attack on Hundred Nights.

Filiault, who insisted the suggestion wasn’t personally motivated, wasn’t alone in his stance. Ward 3 Councilor David C. Richards spoke in support of the amendment, joking that he would join Filiault under the wheels of the proverbial bus.

“Everybody we give money to reports to us what they use that money for,” Richards said in reference to other charitable organizations the city supports.

Four members voted to freeze the funding: Filiault; Ward 2 Councilor Mitchell H. Greenwald; Ward 5 Councilor Philip M. Jones; and Richards.

Nine members voted to leave the funding as is: Chadbourne; Ward 3 Councilor Terry M. Clark; Hansel; At-Large Councilor Gary P. Lamoureux; Manwaring; Ward 5 Councilor Thomas F. Powers; Ward 4 Councilor Margaret M. Rice; At-Large Councilor Bartlomiej “Bart” K. Sapeta; and Ward 4 Councilor Robert B. Sutherland.

The discussion on Filiault’s amendment lasted about 15 minutes before receiving a “no” vote, half the amount of time spent debating a proposal by Councilor Clark to allocate $40,000 for a part-time sustainability officer.

That proposal failed, 8-5, despite an impassioned defense by Clark, who described the post as a position within the city manager’s office that would operate as a “point person” or liaison between various departments and stakeholders in the community to coordinate sustainability efforts.

“The biggest argument I’ve heard from people who oppose it is that we’re already doing a fine job with sustainability,” Clark said. “I think we are, but I wouldn’t say we’re doing all we can do. I’d say the city of Keene is only really moderately committed to sustainability. We’re not all in.”

Hansel, who voted against the amendment, said he supports the general sentiment behind the proposal but believes there are better ways to meet the city’s sustainability goals. One option would be for the city to join a coalition of different groups, he said.

“Why don’t we go back to the drawing board and put something together where our investment of time and potentially money is being leveraged with others’?” Hansel said.

City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon, who supported the downtown coordinator position, expressed skepticism about the sustainability officer proposal, telling Clark that the position was never clearly defined.

“I felt that we really hadn’t worked out all the pieces of it to get to a plan that made sense,” she said.

Dragon also pushed back on a suggestion from Clark that a downtown coordinator would not benefit people who live outside of downtown, asserting that economic development efforts in the center of the city have wide-ranging benefits, from more shopping and tourism to increases in assessed property values.

Moreover, the downtown coordinator solves a very real problem, Dragon said.

“There are several organizations right now working on the downtown, and there isn’t a lot of coordination among them,” she said. “There’s a lot of overlap and competition for human resources and financial resources. With this position through (Monadnock Economic Development Corp.), I felt that we had an opportunity to coordinate those efforts.”

Hansel offered a similar defense of the position, describing it as one piece of a much larger economic development strategy for the city and the region.

Thursday marked the close of more than a month of budget talks. The end result, according to Greenwald, who serves as chairman of the finance committee, was “a good, tight budget” that takes care of the city’s needs and wants.

Dragon released the first draft of the proposed budget May 1. The $66,018,368 total approved by the City Council Thursday includes a number of amendments to the budget’s first draft, including a decrease of about $209,000 due to a better deal on health insurance and a slight adjustment related to the closure of the Wheelock Park Campground.

The budget, passed on a vote of 13-0, calls for a $361,855 increase in revenue from local property taxes, a rise of 1.45 percent from the current fiscal year.

It also includes a plan to combine the city’s “fourth-floor” offices — the planning, health and code enforcement departments — into a new community development department.

The reorganization is set to take effect at the start of the next fiscal year, July 1. Assistant City Manager and Planning Director W. Rhett Lamb will head the department, while Health Director John Rogers will stay on as building/health official.

William Holt can be reached at 352-1234 extension 1435, or wholt@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @WHoltKS.