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Next town budget will be impacted
RUMFORD -- Selectman Jeff Sterling noted that the timing for this discussion with the mill is unfortunate as the Board of Selectmen have already gone through their process for the municipal budget, even through "there were hints that there might be a bit of trouble, but there was nothing concrete."
"And our role, I think, as selectmen, is to come up with a budget, after listening to our department heads and our town manager, that best serves the needs of the town. In order to cut that, I think we need to have some idea of specifically what people want to cut, so our department heads and town manager can evaluate what that is," he said.
"We've seen newspaper articles that kind of allude to that we've got to turn over every rock, but we seem to be the boulder that's in the way. I don't know if that's a fair interpretation to what's going on," said Sterling.
He then asked, "What other rocks are being turned over in the Rumford mill, other than this property tax issue, because I think people need to know that."
Tony Lyons, mill fiber supply director and spokesman for the Rumford Paper Co., responded, "Life changed for us in early February and I think we recognized that the budget process was in progress or further along. For us to be able to come and say these are the specifics, we were not in a position to do that point as we didn't even know what the final valuation of the mill was likely to be."
"We had two approaches. We wanted to inform our employees of exactly the situation we were in. Second, we knew one of the rocks we would be turning over was that property tax, so we approached Carlo (Puiia) to make sure he was aware that hey, down the road, we're going to come and part of what the town needs to understand is that there's a good chance that our tax will go down and that the town somehow needs to cover the reduction in spending," he said.
Mill Manager Jerry LeClaire added, "The most significant one is the reduction of 45 people. That's a pretty significant rock to turn over, particularly for those folks."
Sterling said, "I would think the sobering aspect of this whole thing is that on Dec. 27, the news comes out that you're out of bankruptcy, and everything seems really rosy. And that even three months later, here we are. That's really unfortunate for all of us. As aggressive as you can be in your own mill would really be helpful because we don't you go anywhere. We want you around, and I think we want to do what we can do to help you guys."
"It's really hard to say, 'just cut a million dollars out of the budget.' Okay. Where do we start? What's the plan? Where do you think we should go? And then we can analyze it. We can do that on our own, and I have a feeling we're going to do that once the revenue numbers become clearer," he said.
Kelly Berry, mill controller, said, "From my experience, it seems the people that know where to cut the most are the ones who are in charge of those budgets. I can't tell you how many times Jerry (LeClaire) has come to us and said 'we need to cut out one million dollars or five million dollars.' We find it because we know the operation inside and out. I don't know what kind of help the department heads can be to that process."
Sterling said, "Many times, the only feedback we get are the election results. Last year, many of the articles passed by a 60 or 70 percent majority. From my position, when you look at the election results on the municipal budget, the people were telling me last year that you're right on track. This is where we want to be. These are the services we want the town to provide us. This is what we want to pay."
LeClaire said, "If you're income is going to stay at the current level, then that's probably the best way to gauge what you should do. But the message that we gave to Carlo is that we don't think your income is going to stay at the level that it currently is."
Lyons added, "Maybe it was a warning shot across the bow. That given some time, things are not going to be the same. Things are going to change."
Selectman Jeremy Volkernick said that although the budget has gone through the Board of Selectmen, "We have the next step, which is the Finance Committee. They're going to have two meetings coming up. Maybe they can use some of this information, if they choose to, and I'm sure they will. Then we have another process going through in June for the voters."
Selectman Jolene Lovejoy said, "The last thing any of us want to see are people being laid off from jobs. Those people are our neighbors. We see them everyday."
Lyons said, "I don't think that you've had a management team at this mill ever mobilize its employees with the honest and direct communications that we have provided to our employees over the past several weeks. We made a decision to ensure that our employees knew that not only were we asking them to come to the table and tighten the belt, but we were also going to people outside of the mill and saying 'you need to help us as well.'"
"We made it an initiative of ours to ensure that our employees are as educated and informed about what we're trying to do as a management than we have ever before."
Buccina said, "The mill folks coming here today is the start of a process that, if in fact that day does come, when the paper side of this business is no longer or reduced, we don't know that yet, but we need to start preparing."
"I think they were very open today, saying they're going to be looking for an abatement to their mill, which last time, had a very significant impact on our tax base. So I do totally agree that we need to start looking at how we look at our service. On the other side of the coin, the town will be here, hopefully for the next century. But we need to make some adjustments if our main employer is reducing in size or ceases to exist to some capacity," he said.
Finance Committee will look at budget differently
Ted Hotham, vice chairman of the Rumford Finance Committee, said, "We're about to be handed off the budget process and it will be in our hands until it goes to the voters. We have not sat and voted on any of the department budgets or the initiated articles, so we have a big task ahead of us. We've got more insight perhaps than what the Board of Selectmen had when they began the process. I can tell you that our board wants to be as fair and equitable as is humanly possible."
"I think we need to get more people of an understanding of just what's at stake here. So I'm going to ask a question, how serious is the potential that there could be a lock on that mill? How close are we?" he asked.
LeClaire responded, "That's a question that 850 people in the mill have. It's a difficult thing to say. We are working very hard to try to avoid that and that's why we're here today."
Hotham said, "The Finance Committee is tasked with trying to address all the requests that are going to come before us. Then it goes to the voters. Those voters, unfortunately, vote with very little background. They don't have any insight as to why they should give this versus that. I'm being challenged by some of the votes we made last year because we pretty much rubber stamped everything that came through. Both committees -- the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. We didn't really whittle it down and I think some of us were a little bit disappointed that we didn't do more."
"It's going to be different this year. It's a different time. We're being challenged out of Augusta because we don't know what's going to happen. I can virtually guarantee that the Governor is not going to make a decision until after our election. And then we're going to stuck with the responsibility of having a special town meeting to be able to address an even bigger shortage than we looking at now," he said.
"So it's a multi-facited problem. It's starts with education. It starts with everyone being honest, telling us the truth about what's there, not what they hope it could be but what is it really. I'm going to ask every department head, every person who comes to us for initiated articles, to prove to me that you need that money, prove to me that you've cut that budget and make it as lean as you can. Let's do what we can, within reason, to try to stay alive, both at the mill and here in the Town of Rumford," said Hotham.
Buccina said, "Obviously we know today, they are going to be asking for a revaluation or an abatement. Two, how Gov. LePage's revenue sharing works out ($979,000 to Rumford), and we will know that hopefully by June. If not, there is a tool to go back. If the mill get a reduction in their tax assessment, yes, you're taxes could rise, if we maintain our level of service. At that time, when we know that, we will sit down and revisit all of our budgets, collectively."
"We need ideas. I can attest firsthand with this mill is doing to sustain itself on a day-to-day basis. We need to start taking that same approach. We need to start looking at consolidation of services, maybe not with Mexico but maybe right in our own house. We need to start looking at options. Can we do this better?" he asked.
"These folks are doing a very good job at staying alive, staying focused and keeping a lot of our citizens working. And we need to do the same things, constructively, because negativity is just going to disband us and it's not going to help us progress," said Buccina.