BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — What are the selectmen’s budget priorities? That’s what the Finance Committee wants to know.
With so much of taxpayer money already obligated contractually and otherwise, setting priorities for what remains for discretionary spending is critical, finance board member Joseph Uniejewski told town leaders during a budget discussion last week.
Starting tonight at 7, selectmen will meet at least three times this month to continue formulating a spending plan for the upcoming year. The board is also meeting on March 13 and 20.
A $166,000 shortfall in Finance Director Warren Sproul’s $13 million omnibus budget draft was quickly brought into the black when fire Chief Scott Berkenbush announced early in the discussion that the Board of Fire Engineers would withdraw its request for $100,000 to provide some full-time staffing for the fire department.
The fire engineers plan to resubmit the request at another time, after they more fully explore three different staffing models and look into possible grants, he said.
This savings, coupled with some adjustments to recoup unspent contingency money from the Board of Assessor’s tax abatement fund, resulted in a slight budget surplus by the end of Wednesday night’s discussion. But Sproul cautioned that the budget process is far from complete.
He noted that early estimates on new growth are between $41,000 and $78,000, significantly down from $145,926, $147,554, and $172,000 in fiscal years 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively. Fewer units selling last year at the Ocean Meadow Over 55 Housing development was cited as possibly contributing to the drop-off.
While Sproul’s draft factors in the state’s allowable 2.5 percent annual tax levy increase, the finance board is exploring options for lowering that amount. With taxpayers already poised to endure a “significant” tax increase due to capital improvements at the Page Elementary School, committee chairman David Archibald said his team is looking for ways to ease the burden a bit. Taxes are going up over $1 million even without the annual levy increase, which adds another $270,000, he noted.
Selectmen chairman Albert Knowles Jr. said he wanted to wait until the Pentucket Regional School Committee adopts its final budget before making a decision on levy limits. Sproul’s current budget version fully funds the Pentucket assessment within the town’s operating budget.
However, it does not account for $240,000 in tuition for an out-of-district special education placement for a student who recently moved into the Pentucket region. The school board adopts its budget this month.
Police Chief Lisa Holmes is hoping her request for $55,000 to fund an additional full-time police officer makes it to Town Meeting floor this time around. For several years Holmes has advised selectmen that her department is operating with less than optimal staffing, according to state and national police safety standards.
Archibald said the police department budget has increased by 5 or 6 percent annually for several years as opposed to flat funding in other departments. With the addition of the new officer’s salary and benefits, funding for police will go up 10 percent next year.
“That’s a big nut for my way of thinking,” he said, adding that data indicates police were handling more incidents, felonies and calls a decade ago than they are now.
But Selectman Glenn Knowles said those statistics could likely just mean police are now more effective in their patrolling.
Kemper said some residents have a misconception that there are too many police in town. But the truth is Holmes struggles to adequately fill the 24-hour per day/seven days per week schedule with her current staff of six full-time officers. She often has to rely on the less optimal option of filling shifts with reserve police, which may give the false impression that the department is overstaffed, he said.
The current draft includes no appropriation for the Stabilization Fund, which covers anticipated capital costs and equipment replacement. Kemper wanted to see funding at least comparable to what was spent this year. Currently the town has $1.46 million in its Free Cash account, $810,000 in the Stabilization Fund and $856,000 in un-obligated Community Preservation Act money.
Noting that union workers and other contractual employees will receive at least a 2 percent salary increase next year, Knowles argued that fairness dictates that the remaining 30 percent of the municipal work force — the non-contractual employees — should also get the same. He ranked the salary increase and additional police officer on equal footing as his two top priorities.
Kemper felt the funding requests weren’t “apples to apples,” but if he had to rank them, his order would be: the stabilization fund, the police officer and then the employee salaries.
Selectman Dick Cushing needed more information overall but said all three requests held the same weight for him.
But Uniejewski wasn’t buying it. “If you can’t decide on a priority, then nothing is a priority,” he said.