NEWBURY — Officials are hoping their third attempt at a tax hike they say is critical for town services gets the boost it needs from what’s expected to be a high voter turnout in next month’s state election.
A $263,000 tax override will go before voters at the Oct. 23 Special Town Meeting before being put to a townwide vote Nov. 6. If approved at both Town Meeting and the polls, the measure will increase taxes by approximately $82 annually on the average property in town valued at $400,000.
Voters have rejected two previous tax hikes to fund town operations. A larger override — for $950,000 — failed by 200 votes last year. Then in May, a $293,000 override was turned down by just 50 votes.
But after the May election, town leaders heard from many residents who felt they were not sufficiently notified that a proposed tax hike was on the ballot. Selectmen agreed to give the proposal another try this fall. There is no additional cost to include the override question on the state election ballot.
Town Administrator Tracy Blais believes the key to getting voter support for the measure this time lies in better communicating to voters the new approach to fiscal planning she began implementing when she was hired in 2011.
Blais said that for nearly a decade prior to her arrival, gaps in the operating budget were “plugged” with money from free cash and stabilization accounts — a practice that she called “notoriously bad” from a financial perspective.
“Although it kept us from having to make the difficult decisions of reducing budgets and eliminating services, it also left no funding available for capital asset repairs and replacements,” Blais said. “Deferring maintenance left our buildings and equipment in disrepair, even leading up to the DPW facility being condemned.”
Blais found a way to address capital needs through money generated by the sale of town-owned land. Those funds, coupled with a volunteer effort that provided an estimated $295,000 worth of work hours, allowed for the successful renovation of the Town Hall and public works headquarters and for repairs to the catch basins in town. The money also paid for building envelope studies at the elementary school and library.
But Blais said that because the town can only legally spend the proceeds of land sales on “bondable” capital expenses, there is still a need to adequately fund the operating budget.
She said she has worked with selectmen to increase reserves and minimize the cost of government, which, coupled with substantial budget cuts recently, has created what Blais calls “a sustainable operating budget.”
However, she said selectmen have “made it clear” they do not feel the current operating level is adequate — particularly in the area of public safety. She said officials believe an override is needed to address the serious negative impact repeated cuts to the general budget have had on key services.
For example, an $81,500 reduction in wages has left the Police Department with fewer officers on patrol, resulting in increased response times and an unsafe working environment for officers forced to work alone. The cutback is compounded by the $184,300 budget reduction the department sustained last year.
Under the current funding level, overtime has been eliminated, investigative services and officer training have been drastically reduced, At times, officers must leave their patrols to cover dispatch duties,
Because of fiscal constraints, the police union has declined contractually allowable pay increases in 2010 and 2011. In the past three years, police salaries and wages have dropped by $330,000 overall.
Fire services aren’t faring much better, Blais said. A $97,000 cut eliminated weekend station coverage, storm stand-by coverage, cellar pumping and the staging of apparatus on Plum Island during bridge openings.
Some 12 years of cuts to the public works budget have forced that department to rely heavily on donated materials and volunteer labor to maintain “key town assets” like Town Hall and the DPW barn, she said. The DPW crew is half the size it was in fiscal year 2005, parks maintenance and mowing are gone, the duck pond no longer receives chemical treatment and beach cleaning is left to the whim of volunteers.
Gravel roads are not being graded or treated with calcium chloride, roadway maintenance has been curtailed and crack sealing and road brushwork occur only a “very limited basis,” she added.
At the public library, 10 years of cuts have reduced its budget by $190,000, slashing services and putting it at risk for decertification. According to a contract signed in August 2000, the library must be kept operational at least through April 1, 2021 or taxpayers must repay $984,216 in grant monies and interest accepted to construct the new facility in recent years.
Officials have been able to trim $30,000 from the earlier override request in May through savings in the line-item budget. The money will pay for one 35-hour per week position at Town Hall to help the tax collector, town accountant and town administrator with backlogged work and other clerical duties.
But the bulk of the override is still needed to restore and maintain services in town.
“The majority of these issues have not gone away,” Blais said. “We’ve made great progress on our capital projects, but still need to work toward adequately funding our operating budget.”