Smith ‘cautiously optimistic’ about $27.53 million budget
BY TOM REILLY
SUTTON – Town Administrator Jim Smith is hopeful that despite possible cuts in school personnel, the Fiscal Year 2014 budget remains balanced and manageable.
Smith presented the preliminary budget at the Sutton Board of Selectmen’s Feb. 19 meeting with this year’s number at $27,533,330, an increase of $643,000 (2.43 percent) over last year. This was the earliest the budget had ever been balanced, usually facing a deficit of between $100,000 and $200,000 and faced with having to make cuts, according to Smith.
Smith said $77,000 of the budget increase came from employee benefit increases, a figure he said was “really small,” especially compared with a $400,000 increase two years ago. The town administrator said the “real driver” in this low increase was no increase in health insurance benefits this year. He reminded selectmen this line item had gone up $250,000 just two years ago. He continues to work with the Insurance Advisory Committee to keep the cost of healthcare down with at the very lest no increase.
Smith said there would be the same unemployment costs on the town and school sides, $120,000 each. He added this was because there would be layoffs on the school side this year. The budget contained $130,000 in capital spending items for the school, but the “big number” was the appropriation increase of $350,000, Smith said. He added the town would continue to pick up $52,000 in data processing costs for the school. Smith said he hoped this would be the last year of significant school layoffs.
The town administrator said is an increase of $182,000 in departmental budgets and $400,000 in school increases, but this included Blackstone Valley Tech and Norfolk Agricultural High School. He noted BVT had not issued its budget request yet but four fewer Sutton students would be attending next year. The town’s overall debt service was down $60,000.
Out of $616,000 budgeted for the town’s capital plan, $130,000 will go to the school department with $50,000 of that going to safety equipment, said Smith. If a door was left ajar, a signal would go to the office and someone would be dispatched to lock it. Other capital items include $70,000 for two police department vehicles, $80,000 over three years to the fire department for self-contained breathing apparatus, $80,000 to the assessors to fund the town’s tri-annual revaluation, $50,000 to fix the roof at Waters Farm, $10,000 to install energy efficient windows at town hall (with Building Commissioner John Couture doing the work), and another $180,000 to fund various solar energy projects on public buildings.
Smith said the town was able to provide some small increases in services in the budget, including adding an additional police officer to serve as school resource officer, and a fully funded library, where the town would not need to secure a waiver from the state.
There would be a new highway department employee who would be overseeing the cemeteries due to Smith’s cutting the cemetery budget in half. He said the town would continue with a voluntary cemetery commission and some summer help. Smith reported two of the current cemetery commissioners are seeking to retire and the work was simply too much for them in the summer. He stressed there would continue to be a cemetery commission but with volunteer members.
Smith said this was the third year the town would be paying down the school debt, noting the project was 50 percent finished with the town continuing to work to reduce its reliance on one-time revenues in the budget.
The state had increased the lottery funds it sends to Sutton by $30,000, but still represented a 29 percent cut since FY2009. Chapter 70 funding—state aid to schools—was up $38,000, but also down 5.3 percent since FY2009. Overall pension costs were up $56,500, an increase of 7.5 percent.
Smith said he was not recommending funding these increases in state aid as Governor Deval Patrick’s budget relied upon an income tax increase. Smith said he wanted to wait and see what the House and Senate chose to do. If there was no early resolution, but the town still received the increase, the town could still budget the increases at fall town meeting.
“I don’t think we want to rely on money that’s not quite guaranteed at this point in time,” he said.
The only change in revenue this year— and for the last five—came from local property taxes, up 3.97 percent. Local receipts were down slightly—1.4 percent- -but Smith considered this to be breaking even. There was $300,000 in free cash, but Smith said the goal has been to make free cash as recurring revenue by funding the same amount that could be replaced the following year. He hoped for a little bit in state aid, but didn’t think it would be enough to make a difference.
Smith presented a list of budget figures going back to FY2003. He pointed out that in FY2003, the town received $5.2 million in local aid. For FY2014, 12 fiscal years later, it had only risen to $5.9 million.
“That’s a $700,000 increase in 11 years,” he said. “It’s peanuts.”
He noted over the last few years, the town initiated projects to bring in additional revenue. The rental of the Manchaug Library to the Puckihuddle School brought in about $12,000 per year. The solar voltaic project at the early learning center brought in $40,000 in solar renewable energy credits. Health Department regionalization secured another $10,000. For future revenue, he hoped the solar voltaic projects at the fire stations and sewer plant would bring in $10,000 and a similar project would bring another $20,000 at the new high school.
Smith told the selectmen he was recommending boat excise tax money be split evenly by the Lake Singletary and Manchaug Pond watershed associations. Previously, all of the money has gone to Lake Singletary, but Manchaug Pond association members would like to use some for bi-annual dam inspections and allow the money in the maintenance fund to accrue interest, Smith said.
The town administrator said he would be using free cash to buyback $30,000 in sick leave from Highway Director Mark Brigham who will be retiring some time in FY2014. The town capped this program several years ago, but Brigham’s agreement predated that action.
Smith said the town would put $65,000 in free cash into the OPEB liability trust fund along with $35,000 from the Medicare part D subsidy. Smith said this was the last year the town would receive this Medicare funding.
He said the sewer enterprise fund was level-funded, excluding money charged for the OPEB liability of sewer employees. He noted enterprise funds are supposed to be self sustaining and this included post employment benefits. He also said the sewer department would be purchasing a pickup truck out of retained earnings.
He was asking the cost of a sticker at the transfer station be raised by $10 to allow the station to turn a profit in the face of rising salary costs and tipping fees at Wheelabrator. He noted this would help pay for the cost of future upgrades and renovations at the transfer station.
Smith said he was cautiously optimistic the town was starting to “turn the corner with this budget.” His goal has always been sustainability on the town and school side without the need for an override “to find a way to live within our means without the need for going to the taxpayers.” He noted the town has been able to do this while having a solid stabilization fund, funding the other post employment benefits trusts, a five-year capital plan funded by the capital stabilization fund and not using one-time money for recurring costs.