By Jennifer Solis
---- — WEST NEWBURY — The Finance Committee this week offered selectmen a preliminary list of fiscal priorities as town leaders get set to kick off budget discussions for the upcoming year.
Finance Director Warren Sproul presented the one-page memo to selectmen at a meeting on Wednesday,, but the finance team still plans to meet again to finalize its list.
Finance Chairman Joe Anderson said after the meeting that his committee is concerned about the potential for increased taxes — coming in particular from three specific areas:
The Page School renovation project, which voters have already approved.
The need for additional improvements not already funded for Page.
Improvements to the high school and middle school over the long term.
The committee’s recommendations include ways to proactively mitigate the potential tax increases. One option is to use funds from the free cash account to retire items with higher interest rates that are coming due in the next three to six years.
“We can just pay off and remove that expense from the tax rate,” Anderson said, although he added that he personally did not favor paying off the lease on the Fire Department’s aerial tower truck because that was just recently refinanced at an attractive rate.
A comparison of actual expenditures versus budget estimates in town departments over the past three years would also help, the committee noted. However, it added that selectmen should be careful to look for trends in spending and not penalize a department for money that went unspent in its budget for just one year.
Finding additional ways to apply Community Preservation Act funds could also ease the burden on taxpayers, finance leaders said. Anderson said the feedback his committee is getting from residents is “that the town has a good deal of money in reserve — be it free cash, stabilization or CPA funds — that might be used to lessen the tax burden.
But he stressed payoffs using reserve funds should only be made on one-time expenses.
“One thing we do not want to do is to create a structural deficit by paying for ongoing operating items with cash. That just creates issues the following year,” Anderson said.
The committee would like to see the town develop a five- to 10-year capital budget plan that includes projected school building costs. Department heads should be asked to review their capital needs as part of their budget discussions.
The committee also believes the Page School Building Committee should create a five-year plan and identify whether any items in the plan could be covered with CPA funds.
“This request was loud and clear at Town Meeting,” the memo said.
The Finance Committee wants more analysis and discussion on ways to increase revenues and, in the coming year, would like to see discussion at Town Meeting include information for voters about where the town stands on revenue, free cash, CPA and the tax rate, along with a report on financial issues and opportunities facing the community.
Anderson said the long-term goal is to identify what the additional needs are going to be from a financial perspective and start budgeting for them now.
“We don’t want to wake up one day five years from now and the only solution is a series of overrides,” he said.
Selectmen and Sproul agreed on Wednesday to set a Jan. 10 deadline for all funding requests for the Spring Annual Town Meeting. Requests not submitted by that date may wind up not being considered for inclusion on the warrant, Selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles said.