BY TOM REILLY
Sutton Town Administrator Jim Smith gave the Sutton selectmen an update on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. He said that as of that day, the budget was balanced, something he said typically happened at about this time of year. By now the town had most of its numbers in place including its healthcare expenses and the cost of funding Sutton’s share of Blackstone Valley Tech.
He felt the budget was ready not just ultimately for town meeting but also for the finance committee meetings, which would begin later that week. Smith said he hoped the members would quickly be able to put their budget discussions behind them and make their recommendations for town meeting.
Smith said the balanced budget was close to $27 million and that came to $850,000 more than last year or an increase of 3.29 percent more than last year. He said this increase was made up of three components—a $350,000 debt exclusion override increase in the override from last year; $450,000 in the annual Proposition 2 ½ increase; and $100,000 in new growth. Smith said this was all of the new revenue the town was receiving. He said there was no increase of any kind in state aid or anywhere else in the budget.
“We’re really balancing this budget on $500,000 in tax revenue,” he said, along with the debt exclusion that the town took last year.
The town administrator said the challenge was to maintain town services. He noted that there is still an open sergeant’s position not yet filled and that most town departments no longer had clerks and if they did, those people were only working part time.
“The school department is suffering as much as we are, if not more,” said Smith. He noted that he has tried to reduce the town’s reliance on one-time revenues, something that the Board has set as one of its goals. Free cash has been cut down to $485,000, the lowest it’s been since 2007. Additionally, there were planned layoffs in the school department, Smith said.
As far as state aid was concerned, “the bottom line is we continue to receive less,” said Smith. He noted that lottery aid was down $350,000 since fiscal year 2009 and that Chapter 70—the state money targeted for schools—was down over seven percent over the same period. He said Governor Deval Patrick has said he will try to boost lottery aid by $47,000, the same as he did last year, but Smith said he did not think this would happen and even if it did, Sutton would likely receive less than last year.
Smith then showed a slide of the town’s revenues for the coming year, noting that the only funding source to show an increase was local property taxes, which were up six percent. Smith said he would not be taking any money out of the stabilization fund in order to give that particular part of the town’s finances a chance to grown.
He reminded his listeners that the town received more money in state aid back in 2007 than it did today. He added that new growth has been down, but it was possible that things might be slowly turning around as more building permits were being pulled. He cited Leland Hills Estates and Phase III of the Villas at Pleasant Valley as developments that were starting to pick up.
“So there are some new growth projects,” said Smith, though he also thought the improvement at the intersection of Route 146 and Boston Road would make some of the adjacent parcels more attractive to developers.
The town administrator told the selectmen that over the past 18 months the town has initiated several projects that either are or soon could be providing additional revenue.
The old Manchaug Library continues to be rented to the Puckihuddle Preschool for $12,000 a year. The solar voltaic SREQS from the solar energy project at the school complex will bring in between $60,000 and $100,000 per year. Cell tower revenue could bring in between $30,000 and $50,000. Health department regionalization has brought in an additional $10,000. Planned hydro power generation at the Manchaug Dam will generate some revenue, Smith said, as will the installation of solar panels on the roof of the Manchaug fire station.
Smith said employee healthcare costs would be going up by $55,000, the smallest increase in recent years. He said it might be possible to get that number lower through negotiations.
The cost of pensions rose by $28,735 or four percent while $140,000 has been set aside for unemployment benefits. He noted that $40,000 of this figure would be funded through free cash. He noted that $120,000 of the unemployment money would go to fund seven layoffs in the school system. Smith said that as far as the town’s two enterprise funds were concerned, the sewer department would be level funded this year while no rate increase was planned for the sixth consecutive year.
In addition, the majority of the town’s capital plan expenditures—a total of $152,500 out of $286,600—would go to the schools. Of the remaining money, $62,100 would go to the police for two cruisers, $25,000 to the fire department for vehicle maintenance and a generator, $40,000 to the highway department for a six wheel pickup truck with plow, and $7,000 for the town clerk for voting booths.
Smith also noted that he town has also increased its funding to the schools by an additional $32,523. Smith said the town is now picking up the full cost of the data processing position it shares with the schools--$35,000 in total. He told his listeners that part of the problem is that Chapter 70 aid is still at roughly the same level it was in 2008.
Smith said the “tricky part of the budget” and the item that could have an effect on future efforts to construct things like a new police station or the improvements planned for Shaw Farm was the middle school/high school debt exclusion plan. He noted that the town brought on $550,000 in a debt exclusion increase during the current fiscal year and it would be adding another $350,000 in the coming fiscal year, $256,000 in 2014, and $297,000 in 2016. He added that after this the burden on taxpayers for this project would start to ease and at that point the buildings would be completed. Smith said at this point the town could begin considering other projects.