BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — NEWBURY — Thanks to sound financial management and leadership, the town hopes to “stay the course” fiscally speaking during the upcoming year, Finance Committee chairman Frank Remley told Town Meeting voters on Tuesday.
Remley reported that the town had a record $787,000 in its free cash, or unspent tax funds -- with total current cash reserves at $1.4 million, but projected to rise to $2.17 million in the upcoming fiscal year. He credited the increase in large part to the efforts by the Town Administrator Tracy Blais and her Finance Department to collect back property taxes, continue to cinch the belts on public safety staffing and expense costs, and update the fees charged for town services.
Unusually low costs for snow and ice removal, the successful sale of excess town properties, lower-than-typical education costs, and an unexpected spike in excise tax revenues, have also played a role in the town’s current fiscal health, said Remley.
Praising Blais for properly managing municipal costs and reserves, Remley noted that spending on education is down 2.8 percent, the general fund is up 1.7 percent, and wages increased by 2 percent.
The biggest budgetary winners this time around are the Public Works and Public Safety departments -- up 20 percent and 13.1 percent respectively, but spending on Human Services is down by 41.8 percent, he said, reflective of a decision to outsource operations at the town’s transfer station.
Following the meeting Blais described the $16.77 million budget vote, as “the first step in reinstating programming that has been lost during the past decade.” She stressed that programming was being added back “cautiously” and only to the levels that town officials deem necessary.
In addition to “staying the course” on current initiatives and maintaining the push for adequate funding for reserves, Remley said priorities in the upcoming budget include reinstating public safety programming cut in recent years, developing a road improvement plan, continuing to address capital facilities issues, and enhancing communication between residents and Town Hall.
Capital needs to be addressed in fiscal year 2014 include: equipment and repairs to the Public Works department ($208,415), Ch. 90 funds for road improvements ($410,896), flood-controlling weir on Middle Road ($38,880), Historical Commission ($6,069), fire safety gear ($16,000), Newbury Elementary School repairs ($69,713), library repairs ($35,000).
Voter turnout was low at Town Meeting with just 69 of the town’s 5,200 registered voters taking up an annual warrant that included a multi-million dollar operating budget, a new solar bylaw, and real estate tax abatements to property owners whose homes on Plum Island were destroyed as a result of recent storm-related beach erosion. Voters passed all requests on both the annual and special warrants with little discussion and only minor amendments made to wording on a couple articles.
At the end of the meeting Blais reported a remaining free cash balance of $453,459; $390,633 in the stabilization account; and $2,526 currently in the Sale of Land account -- but $844,000 pending in sales of municipal properties. Under state law, funds from the Land Sale account may only be used for capital needs.
The town has maxed out its levy capacity, but the town administrator remains cautiously optimistic about Newbury’s fiscal progress.
“This is the first time in many years that voters have been presented a balanced budget that did not require significant cuts to essential services,” she said.
For the first time the annual meeting was videotaped for rebroadcast on the town’s new cable access channel, Channel 9 (TNC-TV).