By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — When acting police Chief Kevin Ouellet is officially sworn in as the city’s leading law enforcement officer on July 1, he will likely be pressed into making do with less than he and retired Chief Mark Gagnon had hoped for.
Last week, the City Council, acting in its capacity at the Finance Committee, rejected the police department’s fiscal 2014 funding request of $3,769,871, asking Gagnon and Ouellet to trim $29,000 from its bottom line. The council is expected to meet tonight to approve Mayor Thatcher Kezer’s proposed $55,813,221 fiscal 2014 budget.
At last week’s budget hearing, the council focused much of its attention on proposed salaries for the department’s top three positions: chief, executive officer and detective lieutenant, even though the council doesn’t have the power to slash specific line items.
Instead, the council can approve less money than requested, placing the burden on department heads to make cuts where they feel most appropriate. Some in attendance last week saw the council’s decision to single out the pay of the top three positions as more of a statement regarding bloated police salaries.
Reached yesterday, Councilor at-large Jim Kelcourse said there has been concern among his colleagues that Amesbury’s police brass were making more money than lead officers in communities comparable in size to Amesbury. Asked whether councilors were sending a message that night, Kelcourse demurred, saying he wouldn’t go as far as saying the council’s intent was sending a message.
“But it’s appropriate we should be sending a message to the police department and the mayor,” Kelcourse said, adding he thought the city could afford to pay high-ranking police officers less than they make currently.
Considering that the police department is seeking an increase of $354,528 from fiscal 2013, mostly due to contractual salary increases, a $29,000 cut may not seem dramatic. To put that in perspective, the fire department is seeking a fiscal 2014 budget of $2,994,470, an increase of $28,357 from what the department received in fiscal 2013.
The fire department, city clerk and the Amesbury Public Library were among those agencies whose budgets were approved without cuts. And while the school department’s fiscal 2014 budget is set to see a bump as well, it won’t increase as much as school officials had hoped, leading to tough choices in the months to come. Another department faced with budget cuts is Community and Economic Development.
Yesterday, Kezer said the police department’s budget hike reflects the switch over to a regional dispatch center in Middleton starting this summer. That means the department will have to absorb $155,277 to fill four and-a-half positions to watch over prisoners and to fulfill walk-in duties at the School Street station. Previously, the four full-time and one part-time positions were covered under a separate line item called public safety communications. Kezer is estimating the switch to a regional dispatch center will save the city $238,125 in fiscal 2014 alone, covering much of the proposed budget increase.
Should the police department’s budget cut become official, Gagnon said it will force cuts in a department that is already lean.
“We’re pretty much trying to keep things like they were last year,” Gagnon said, adding one item off the table will be job cuts.
Gagnon, whose last day in the department was last week, has been part of budget process since the beginning, attending Finance Committee meetings and is expected to be inside City Hall tonight when the council makes its final vote.