By Jim Sullivan
---- — AMESBURY — Mayor Ken Gray delivered his fiscal year 2015 operating budget of $53,863,035 to the City Council last night, which represents a spending increase of 2.7 percent from the current year’s adjusted budget.
“This budget is the first step in what will be a long term solution,” Gray wrote. “It’s taken Amesbury many years to get into the position in which we find ourselves and it will take time to dig our way out. This budget is an initial step in the right direction towards improving the quality of life for all our residents and relieving our future tax burden.”
According to the 132 page document, revenues from sources other than the real estate tax levy are up $436,209, resulting in an increase in the property tax levy of $990,562, an increase slightly less than last year.
The cost of meeting union contract obligations with teachers, police, firefighters and office workers accounts for the largest component of spending increases for the new budget, followed by debt payment increases for capital projects such as the new DPW building and fire station rebuild.
The budget requested for the Police Department is $3,843,376 which represents a $102,504 increase from last year. The Fire Department’s budget will rise $97,603 to $3,092,073, representing a 2.5 percent increase in the base pay for both departments. The Police Department has also taken on the one-time cost of certain officers retiring. Also, four firefighters that were funded as part of a grant for the past four years are now coming onto the city’s payroll. Reductions in overtime helped to keep the Fire Department’s increase lower.
“The FY15 budget focuses heavily on schools, with the majority of new spending going to education,” Gray wrote. “Moreover, even with substantial increases in personnel related contractual obligations, the proposed tax levy increase is at a rate slightly less than last year’s increase. We are able to accomplish this in no small part because most of the municipal department heads have been able to rise to my challenge to find creative ways to reduce department costs while maintaining or improving services.”
The Amesbury Public Schools represent 52 percent of the budget (with another 6 percent going towards other education-related items) and will be the subject of the first Finance Committee public budget hearing 7 p.m. at City Hall tonight. Finance Committee member City Councilor and Council President Joe McMilleon said he looks forward to the process beginning.
“I think the mayor has done a really good job of looking at the budget very closely,” McMilleon said. “I know that he worked very hard and very close with the school committee to get their budget within a reasonable realm. More comments and more points of view will come, I am sure, during the hearings.”
The Department of Public Works’ budget is down 2 percent for FY2015 from $1,358,277 to $1,331,044 and will be the subject of Thursday night’s hearing. The hearings will continue for the next three weeks before the budget is officially approved on June 17.
Gray also outlined his long term plan for the city; Decrease the rate of property tax increases while maintaining or improving municipal services and meeting previously contracted financial obligations. Invest in education in order to strive for excellent schools but not at the cost of digging deeper into the property tax hole. Focus on initiatives that will result in expanding the city’s commercial/industrial tax base to raise future revenue without further burdening homeowners.
“For many years we have faced two very large and very challenging financial problems in Amesbury. Enormously high and ever increasing property taxes (and) consistently under funded schools,” Gray wrote. “These are deep problems with no easy solutions and neither problem can be solved by itself without negatively affecting the other.”