By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — A simple vote to approve the town’s default budget spurred debate over whether it should be higher or lower than the proposed operating budget.
By the time the discussion ended, selectmen voted, 3-2, to adopt a default budget of $37.6 million — nearly $188,000 more than the proposed operating budget.
Selectmen Everett McBride Jr., James Keller and Michael Lyons voted in favor Monday, while Chairman Patrick Hargreaves and Stephen Campbell were in opposition.
“How can the default budget be more than the operating budget?” Hargreaves said yesterday. “It makes no sense to me.”
Hargreaves and Campbell questioned how the default budget was calculated.
If voters reject the operating budget, the default budget automatically goes into effect. Default budgets, not often the subject of debate, usually include the same funding as in the previous year’s budget in addition to contractual increases, such as employee pay raises.
Both the default budget and $35.5 million operating budget now go before voters in March. But the town’s adoption of the Senate Bill 2 form of government earlier this year means budgets can no longer be amended by residents at a second deliberative session.
Campbell has said residents have complained whenever the school district’s default budget exceeds its operating budget.
McBride said yesterday he had no problem voting in favor of the higher default budget.
“I think it’s reasonable,” he said.
A memo to selectmen from finance director Jane Savastano explained the proposed default budget would be about $900,000 less than the operating budget, Hargreaves said.
But that was before selectmen made a series of budget cuts and moved numerous capital budget requests to the town warrant, leading to the $187,600 increase in the default budget, he said.
Also Monday, selectmen tabled action on a proposed agreement that would allow the Greater Salem Caregivers to rent space at Town Hall for $200 a month.
The nonprofit organization would move into space formerly occupied by the state Division of Motor Vehicles, which moved to Main Street after more than 30 years at Town Hall.
The Caregivers is one of several organizations that currently occupy the former Mary Foss School on Lawrence Road. The town is looking to close the dilapidated building.
Questions arose over wording in the proposed rental agreement, Hargreaves said. Selectmen are expected to discuss the agreement again at their meeting Dec. 3.