Amherst fiscal 15 plan and budget: A balancing act

This year, the strategic planning project led by the Board of Selectmen, the Capital Improvement Plan led by the Planning Board, and other aspects of tighter governance have created a framework for tying the proposed fiscal 2015 annual budget and other warrant articles to key initiatives and planned outcomes. This is a major shift away from simply looking at year-over-year budget numbers. The town warrants also reflect that Amherst is playing catch-up in some areas while striving to maintain the level of quality in other areas.

Today, the municipal portion of the total Amherst tax bill is only 20 percent – the other 80 percent funds schools and county taxes. Amherst has the eighth lowest municipal tax rate of the 31 towns in Hillsborough County. The selectmen believe sensible, focused funding will help balance all facets of town life, even as the major investment in roads brings this crucial infrastructure back in line.

Article 22 Operating Budget

The proposed fiscal 2015 budget is $11,774,356, a 4.32 percent increase over the current fiscal 2014 default budget. A little more than half of this increase (about $245,000 or 2.1 percent) results from principal and interest payments for the road bond work done last summer. Work done each year activates new principal and interest, which the town will pay through 2027. This increase will take effect regardless of whether the budget is passed, i.e. it will also be part of a default budget.

Most of the remaining increase (about $242,000 or 2.15 percent) covers increases in compensation for Amherst’s Fire ($75,000) and EMS ($75,000) staff, and a 1.5 percent cost of living increase and a 1.5 percent step increase for eligible town workers of about $54,000. Because our fire and EMS pay scales are much lower than those offered by neighboring towns, we continue to lose good people who seek better pay elsewhere.

The remaining $38,000 covers increases and adjustments in all other budget line items, for example, the anticipated increased costs of health insurance and fuel, increased training for public safety workers, etc. Should the proposed operating budget fail, this is where the impact will be felt.

The proposed operating budget would result in a tax increase of $30 on the typical $330,000 home. If all town warrants, including the operating budget warrant, were approved, the tax increase on the typical $330,000 home would be $177.

The fiscal 15 budget supports many elements of the strategic plan:

? Continuing to rebuild roads under the road bond.

? Rebalancing selective compensation levels to make Amherst more competitive with other towns.

? Conducting a complete Public Safety review (Fire, EMS, Police, Communications and DPW) with a particular focus on what model for fire protection can work best for Amherst and whether we should merge fire and EMS.

? Conducting a DPW operations review to ensure we have the optimum structure, processes, resources, and people deployed to provide the best value to residents.

? Developing plans to address the loss of Cemetery Fields recreation space and relocating the Roy Playground.

? Expanding strategic planning to town boards, committees and commissions.We believe this budget and what it supports will be very beneficial to the town by bringing all facets of Amherst’s quality of life into better balance. We’re playing catch up with our roads, fleet and equipment, and pay levels. But, it won’t serve the town well to ignore other aspects of life.

Other warrant articles with financial implications are discussed briefly below.

Article 23 Establishing a Contingency Fund

Due to a law passed in Concord last year, town governments are forbidden to put “contingency funds” into their budgets as a line item. The law requires that, if a town wants to have a contingency fund, it must pass a warrant article specifying the amount. These contingency funds are not raised through taxation; if approved by the voters and expended by the Selectmen, they are drawn from the town’s undesignated fund balance, essentially, the town’s savings account. If they are approved but not spent, the funds remain in the town’s undesignated fund balance. We ask the voters to authorize the Selectmen to access up to $100,000 of the town’s undesignated fund balance, should the unexpected happen.

Article 24 Police Union Contract

This article requests the town’s residents to approve a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with the town’s police union. The total cost over the three years will be $111,581. We believe this contract is fair to both sides, and represents a modest approximate 1.6 percent annual increase in the roughly $2.2 million fiscal 2014 police budget.

Article 26 Nonlapsing Recreation Playing Field Expansion

This warrant creates and funds a capital reserve fund for the express purpose of allowing the Selectmen to acquire a portion of the 47.85 acres purchased in 1993 with funds from the Cemetery Trust fund for the town to retain Cemetery Fields. The fund can not be used for any other purpose, and will lapse in two years if not spent. We believe that the lowest-cost option for providing recreational field space to Amherst is to retain the use of the fields we are currently using. Presently, by a consent decree entered into with the probate court (and other parties), all recreational use of Cemetery Fields must cease as of Sept. 1. This warrant creates the funds that would allow town government to buy a portion of the land from the Cemetery Trustees, should it become available.

Article 27 Fire Truck Capital Reserve Fund

This warrant asks the voters to add $250,000 to the capital reserve fund that is used to purchase fire engines and related equipment. Adding the funding does not equal spending it; the Selectmen must still vote to acquire a new truck.

Article 28 Assessing Capital Reserve Fund

All property in Amherst must be reassessed every five years. We estimate that the reassessment, which will take place in tax year 2016 will cost approximately $100,000. This warrant asks the voters to place $25,000 into this fund so, when the revaluation takes place in 2016, we will have acquired the necessary funds.

Article 29 Communications Center Capital Reserve Fund

The Communications Center receives more than 61,000 calls for service annually. Established in 2006, this capital reserve fund covers the replacement, upgrading or expansion of both software and hardware. This article requests $15,000 be added to the fund.

Article 30 Town Computer Systems Capital Reserve Fund

This article would add $15,000 to the reserve fund for replacing or upgrading computer systems and networks across town government, as needed.

Article 31 Public Health Mosquito Surveillance and Control program

This article would allocate $40,000 to monitor and apply larvicide directly to select wetland areas where mosquitoes might possibly spread West Nile Virus or Eastern Equine Encephalitis.

Article 32 Highway Equipment and Vehicle Capital Reserve

The Amherst DPW currently has a vehicle and equipment fleet with a replacement value of approximately $2.9 million. The life of this equipment varies between six and 12 years, with an average of about eight years. The DPW has struggled to find an efficient way to acquire funding to replace this equipment in a timely way. Running equipment “too long” results in excessive downtime and unacceptably high maintenance costs to keep equipment in service past its useful end-of-life. The Selectmen hope that establishment of this capital reserve fund and its initial funding of $300,000 will help DPW more cost effectively manage its fleet.

Article 33 Replacement Scale Purchase

The current pit-mounted scale at the town Transfer Station was purchased in 1995 and has had repeated problems from water damage. The scale generated about $58,000 in revenue for the town in 2013. However, the town has spent almost $28,000 in repairs on it between 2008 and 2013. We believe that the town has received good value for its 1995 investment, and that replacing the scale with a surface-mounted scale for $70,000 will be a cost-effective investment for the next 20 to 30 years, paying for itself in two years.

Article 34 Ambulance Capital Reserve Fund

Similar to Warrant Article 27, this warrant asks the voters to continue adding to the capital reserve fund that is used to purchase ambulances and related equipment. Adding $50,000 to the fund does not equal spending it; the Selectmen must still vote to acquire a new ambulance.

We thank you for reviewing these important topics and ask for your support on March 11 by approving these and other Selectmen-sponsored warrant articles.

DWIGHT BREW, chair, BRAD GALINSON, vice chair, JOHN D’ANGELO, clerk, TOM GRELLA and MIKE AKILLIAN

Amherst Board of Selectmen