BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY – Voters were in a positive mood at Town Meeting Monday, giving thumbs up to nearly every request on the annual and special warrants -- including those for which some town leaders were less than supportive.
They approved a $12,802,365 budget –-up 5 percent over this year’s spending plan. At the meeting’s end, the town’s excess tax levy capacity stood at $37,467; with $760,592 remaining in Free Cash and $834,282 in the stabilization account.
Finance Director Warren Sproul said he was “very conservative” with his budget estimates and predicts that town will be in good shape for the upcoming year.
The new spending plan fully funds the Pentucket Regional School District assessment, gives a 2 percent raise to non-union employees, and –- thanks to an amendment on Town Meeting floor by Dave Kapturowski –- provides selectmen an annual stipend of $500 each.
It also covers one additional full-time police officer – a position Chief Lisa Holmes has tried to get funded for the past 5 years. This year, Holmes level-funded police department expenses, reduced her administrative assistance position to 32 hours, and cut back on funding for reserve police officers and overtime hours in order to make room for the new position within her budget.
Following the meeting, she praised town leaders for their partnership on this effort and thanked voters for their support.
“This year, we all worked together in order to make this work,” she said.
Voters also supported two requests on a special warrant for additional funding for the Page School renovation project. A $159,404 increase in contingency funds was generally viewed as prudent planning for worse case scenarios as the $10 million project wraps up this fall. The Free Cash expense doesn’t increase the scope of the project and the funds will be returned if not used. Currently the construction contingency balance stands at $245,711.
But a second request, $105,690 for to replace flooring in the gymnasium as it is renovated into a cafetorium –received more debate. The work is not part of the scope for the current project but could become a safety issue that needs to be addressed “sooner rather than later,” said Brad Dore of the Page School Building Committee.
Acting now would save the town money in the long run, he said. A majority of the Finance Committee opposed the request and selectman Bert Knowles, Jr. abstained from recommending it, but in the end, voters passed it.
Joe Uniejewski of the Finance Committee, argued for turning down this expansion of scope and instead accelerating a “post Phase II” plan that prioritized remaining items that were not addressed within the scope of the original project.
Dore said the building committee understands the need to plan for future capital improvements in a timely manner, but added that sometimes “we need to look at things in the present and take advantage of opportunities as they avail themselves.”
Selectman Glenn Kemper agreed, saying the floor replacement would “cost us now or cost us later.”
Voters also disregarded advice from the Finance Committee and Knowles, and adopted the state’s Building Energy Conservation Stretch Code –which mandates 20 percent more energy efficiency than standard building codes. Kemper and Selectman Dick Cushing recommended the vote be left to the “will of the town.”
Opponents felt the level of a home’s energy efficiency should be the homeowner’s personal choice. They worried the additional costs associated with the upgraded standards could deter new building in town. Resident Kristi Devine noted the town will now automatically be subjected to new, more stringent standards which the state has yet to define.
But others praised the Energy Advisory’s forward thinking. “This is the 21st century. It’s time for us all to become more energy efficient,” said Barry Fogel.
For the first time since it was established 7 years ago, Community Preservation Act funds were approved for use on an Open Space project. Voters approved $40,100 to install a bridge over the Indian River and a boardwalk on the Coffin Street trail. The project improves the trail area and gives Page School students better access for use with cross-curricular studies outdoors.
Page School teacher Brenda Dresser lauded the Open Space Committee as an “unbelievable partner” that went above and beyond to make this opportunity available to her students.
Since 2006, CPA has brought in $1,349,949 from local tax surcharges and received $965,019 in state matching funds. It has funded 9 projects thus far -- $1,053,563 for historic preservation and $9,600 for affordable housing.
Monday’s meeting began with several recognitions. Local historian Susan Follansbee was awarded Citizen of the Year and Town accountant Eileen DeVeau received Employee of the Year. Dick Cushing, who stepped down this spring as selectman after serving for the past 12 years, received a standing ovation from the 164 voters present in the Town Annex.