BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — NEWBURY — Calling it a plan for “rebuilding on a strong foundation,” Town Administrator Tracy Blais recently presented her budget draft for the upcoming year to the Board of Selectmen and members of the Finance Committee.
The document includes a $16.75 million operating budget that lists as its top priority the reinstatement of cuts endured in the public safety departments over the past five to seven years.
Among the expenditures for next year is $169,027 for police salary and wages, to accommodate an increase in personnel up from nine to 11 officers. There is also funding for the police cruiser replacement plan.
The fire department salary and wages are up 2 percent with funding for training doubled in the proposed plan. The budget continues to address capital facilities needs, most notably the need for a new public safety building.
Blais is proposing a 2 percent hike in wages for non-contractual employees and $100,000 to implement the first year of a new five-year road improvement program.
For the first time it establishes a program for funding the stabilization account. Following the storms that devastated many homes along Plum Island beach this past winter, Blais said she “took a hard look” at the town’s reserve funds.
“We don’t have a significant amount of reserves. We could get though maybe one emergency,” she said. According to Blais, Newbury’s Free Cash amount falls within a state Department of Revenue recommendation that the balance be at least 5 percent of the town’s overall budget. She noted that the Massachusetts Government Finance Association proposes a Free Cash percentage closer to 15 percent, but she believes the most important factor is that the balance in the account stay relatively level.
The draft budget includes a $44,000 increase in the Principal Assessor’s position, $10,000 more for the tree warden and $100,000 for the Road Improvement Plan. A line item for DPW road materials and equipment increases $20,000; but due to the changes at the transfer station this past year, salary and wages for the Board of Health will decrease by 30 percent.
Technology upgrades for the library will cost $12,500; there is a slight reduction in funding for the Council on Aging due to grant offsets; and the town is exploring the possibility of regionalizing veterans’ services, Blais noted.
Overall, she anticipates a .5 to 1 percent increase in educational funding as compared to a 1.7 percent increase in town-side spending. Blais called the Triton Regional School District budget “a thoughtful, modest increase” but noted that the town would likely be negatively impacted by how the state is proposing to distribute education aid in its own spending plan for the upcoming year. The number of students attending Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School next year will double to a total of 14.
Blais anticipates $400,000 in new growth, of which $92,000 comes from new construction.
“That’s a lot for us. There is a lot of new building on the horizon.”
On the other hand, local receipts — from items such as motor vehicle excise tax, building fees, fines and forfeits fees — dropped from $1,905,043 in 2011 to $1,844, 366 in 2012, and are projected to fall even further to $1,469,500 in 2014.
An estimated 51 percent spike in available funds is in large part due to the massive effort in the finance department this past year to collect delinquent property taxes. Any properties with back taxes that remain unpaid have liens filed on them or are in foreclosure process, she said.
Blais took time during her presentation to brainstorm possible ways to generate new revenue beyond tax increases. The town should continue looking for opportunities to regionalize some local services. Exploring solar and wind initiatives and promoting recycling as a way to decrease refuse tonnage were also discussed.
Other ideas included continuing to encourage voluntary payments in lieu of taxes from nonprofit entities that benefit from town services, pursuing utility rebate programs and imposing host community fees.
She’d like to see the creation of an Energy Advisory Committee and proposed holding an annual public forum to garner input from residents on additional cost-saving ideas and service priorities.
The town is “a year or two away from hitting goals” that Blais established when she first came on board in 2011. “But we’re getting there faster than I had hoped,” she added. Still, the town administrator warned selectmen to continue expecting “a few years of struggle ahead of us.”
“Well, I’d rather be climbing uphill than sliding downhill,” Selectman David Mountain quipped toward the end of the presentation.