By Jennifer Solis Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News
---- — NEWBURY — The third time apparently was not a charm for Newbury officials who saw a proposed tax hike rejected at the polls Tuesday by just 263 votes in an election that saw 86 percent of voters turning out.
But proponents of the proposed $293,000 override vowed to keep seeking ways to rectify what they say is a dangerously inadequate amount of funding for public safety services in town.
It was the third time officials had sought an override to restore services cut from the budget over the past few years.
Yesterday, Selectman Michael Bulgaris said the election results were disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. He said many taxpayers are “up against it” and “a lot of people are struggling to keep their homes.”
Still, he said he sees a silver lining of sorts in the fact that turnout for the election was considerably higher than in May, when an identical tax hike was defeated by just 50 votes. After that election, many residents contacted town officials to say they were unaware an override had been on the ballot.
A larger tax hike — for $950,000 — was rejected by 200 votes last year.
According to the results posted by Town Clerk Leslie Haley on the town website, Tuesday’s override question was defeated by a vote of 2,298 to 2,035. Of the voters who cast ballots Tuesday, 139 opted not to vote on the question. If approved, the override would have increased taxes by $82 annually on the average home valued at $400,000.
“At least we got the word out and people were informed. No one can say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us’ this time,” Bulgaris said.
Of the town’s 5,209 registered voters, 4,472 went to the polls Tuesday. A record number, 510, of absentee ballots was cast and Haley said the high volume of votes that required hand counting slowed down her team’s ability to finalize vote counts once the polls closed. Results were announced at 10:35 p.m., but Haley revised some numbers yesterday after resolving discrepancies in vote totals.
Town Administrator Tracy Blais said she is disappointed not to be able to provide the same level of essential services residents have received in the past, but said she has “a great deal of confidence” in her department managers.
“I know they will continue to work hard to provide the best services with the resources that have been allocated,” Blais said.
Myfawny Collins of Newbury Override Yes said her group wanted town employees to know that despite the result, “there are many, many people who support them in the work they do and who are grateful for their dedication to Newbury.” Collins said she was inspired by the community spirit generated during the campaign and was hopeful “we will all keep the positive energy going forward.”
Saying “the town has spoken,” police Chief Michael Reilly said his department will “strive to provide the best possible police services with the resources allotted.” He plans to continue monthly assessments “and adjust services and personnel as necessary to stay within our means.”
Bulgaris, a former longtime president of Fire Protection 1 Company in Byfield, said he was still very concerned about the lack of resources for public safety and described police and fire departments as operating in “devastation mode.”
“We’re at the point now that we’re just hoping nothing happens,” the selectman said. He vowed to find ways to incrementally increase spending for public safety over the next few budget cycles.
Max Boucher of the anti-override group, Newbury Austerity, pointed to the town’s $959,003 free cash account as a possible resource. Boucher said Tuesday’s vote showed that taxpayers were keeping town leaders “under tremendous pressure, so we’ll get the very best out of them and our million-dollar reserve.”
Blais, however, has strongly advised against using one-time reserves, such as free cash, to fund ongoing operating expenses.
Finance Board Chairman Frank Remley believes residents “have been cultured into having the town drain reserves to meet ongoing funding needs.” That — along with a natural resistance to taxes in general and a lack of awareness by the average voter about the complexities of municipal finance law — help to explain Tuesday’s result, he said.
Since fiscal year 2011, the police budget has sustained $240,200 in cuts and funding for fire services has been reduced by $86,463. During that time, the Public Works Department lost $172,488 and the library is down $42,595, Remley said.
The override would have added $100,000 back into the Police Department’s salary and wages account, a combined $100,000 into the Newbury and Byfield firefighter wages and protection flat rates, $29,000 for public works salaries and wages and $34,000 for salaries and wages at the public library.
Remley said he hopes that “the more we engage the public and present the business case, the more folks will hopefully understand the challenges in operating the town as an ongoing entity and that it is there to serve community needs.”