NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 28, 2014

Big-ticket requests will go before voters

BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
STAFF WRITER

---- — SEABROOK — Voters will face many costly issues when they go to the polls on March 11, including an 8.6 percent increase in the operating budget and more than $2 million in funding requests. If passed, they would affect the tax rate, but selectmen say the items represent some vital town needs.

Unlike other years when selectmen said passing the budget was their highest priority, this year they believe a new ladder truck for the fire department tops the list of what the town needs the most. However, Question 14 on the warrant, the $175,000 request for the first installment on the five-year lease for an $875,000 platform ladder truck, is one of only two questions not recommended by the Budget Committee.

According to selectmen, the town needs the ladder to fight local fires effectively and safely, especially those at many sizable structures, like multi-story buildings at its apartment complexes, big-box retail stores at its shopping centers, as well as the school.

The new ladder truck would replace the fire department’s shorter quint ladder engine, which is more than 20 years old. Selectman Aboul Khan believes the quint is so old that, given its problems, without a new ladder the town would not be well protected. Selectman Ed Hess said if the new ladder truck isn’t approved, property owners could see their fire insurance premiums rise.

Should voters OK this year’s installment, the remaining four payments would become part of the fire department’s operating budget over the next four years. The town would only use all the money if requests for federal grants to help with the costs are unsuccessful.

If no grants are obtained, the cost equals about 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on the tax rate this year, as well as over the life of the lease.

The fire department has two other sizable requests in the warrant, which together with the ladder total half a million dollars. Article 12 requests $75,000 for building repairs and upgrades to the 30-year-old fire station, the first phase of what is expected to be a two-year plan of upgrades. Article 13 requests $250,000 to remodel the station’s dispatch center and replace all its communications equipment to meet changing technology.

Similar work has been done in recent years at the police station, which is about the same age, Khan said. The funding for that work came from a bequest left for the police department’s use by a deceased resident.

Should voters approve all three fire department requests, it would equal about 20 cents per $1,000 on the tax rate.

The budget

The proposed budget of $20,324,857, up from $18,711,069 this year, is roughly a 8.6 percent rise, more than usual for Seabrook. But figures can be deceiving, officials say, because most of the $1,613,788 increase is due to contractual issues over which officials have no control, said Town Manager Bill Manzi. Specifically, they relate to previous union contracts, approved by voters at past elections, which include salary increases, as well as a more than 20 percent increase in employee health insurance premiums.

Khan said only about 1 percent of the increase represents spending that town officials control.

If voters nix the budget, a default budget of $20,220,230 would automatically go into effect, only about $105,000 less than the budget proposed.

Should voters pass the budget, it is estimated to equal about $7.89 per thousand on the tax rate.

Other money-related warrant questions

The warrant also includes the usual funding requests, such as money for several human service organizations or to buy materials for the town library.

This year, the Water Department is requesting a total of $376,750 in articles, including $178,750 to develop and implement a ground water management plan and $50,000 to clean and rehab all of the town’s wells. The department is also requesting $42,000 to pay for the final phase of the ground water mapping system, and $106,000 to buy a new backhoe/loader. All together, the requests equal about 14 cents on the tax rate.

The Department of Public Works/Parks and Cemeteries is requesting more than half a million dollars in its seven warrant requests, including equipment purchases of $160,000 for a sidewalk snowplow, $135,000 to replace its 1996 loader/backhoe, $60,000 to replace a 1999 plow and $25,000 to replace its 1992 tractor.

Sixty thousand dollars is requested to expand and pave roads in Hillside Cemetery and $10,000 for the Gov. Weare Park expansion. Its largest request for $280,000 to improve town roads would only require about $102,000 from taxes, the balance coming from the state highway block grant and the special reserve transportation fund.

Selectmen are requesting $1.2 million to repair the Seabrook Harbor seawall, but only $200,000 would be derived from taxes. Of the remainder, $600,000 would come from an Economic Development Assistance Grant and $400,000 from other expected donations.

Selectmen are also asking voter permission to transfer $1 million from the tax stabilization fund to replace the million used to rebate NextEra Energy Seabrook nuclear power plant due to a rebate, which was part of its settlement with the power plant over its assessed value in 2012.

Of the other six-figure warrant articles, selectmen are hoping voters will OK $100,000 to replace the back-up generator for Town Hall.

Other town departments have made requests, including the Sewer Department, asking for $50,000 for paving and $42,000 for back-up connections switches.

The Recreation Department, which oversees the Community Center, is asking for $23,850 for a back-up generator. The Community Center acts as the town’s emergency shelter. Also requested is $15,000 to add elements to the children’s playground at the Community Center.

Voters can debate the pros and cons of all 41 articles on the warrant at the upcoming first session of Town Meeting, set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4, at the Community Center. This is the only chance voters have to alter any of the questions before going to the polls in March.