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Amherst budget on even footing

JOSH KUCKENS
Amherst town manager John Musante talks with members of the UMASS community at the annual community breakfast in the Student Union on campus Wednesday.

JOSH KUCKENS Amherst town manager John Musante talks with members of the UMASS community at the annual community breakfast in the Student Union on campus Wednesday. Purchase photo reprints »

Speaking at a joint meeting of the Finance Committee, Select Board, Amherst School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library, Finance Director Sanford “Sandy” Pooler said he expects the town will have to continue what he calls “a slow and steady budget” that includes the values of maintaining consistently high quality of services but living within its means.

“Without additional revenue, it really allows no major expansion of our operating budget,” Pooler said.

For the fiscal 2014 budget, which begins July 1, 2013, Pooler anticipates the town will have $1.97 million in new revenue available. This would be a 3 percent increase in revenue, rising from $65.64 million to $67.61 million.

This projection is based on $1 million in new property taxes, $500,000 in so-called new growth, a modest increase in state aid, likely in chapter 70 aid for schools, and no use of reserves.

This would allow 3 percent increases in the municipal budget, to $20.17 million; the regional schools assessment, to $14.16 million; the elementary schools, to $21.98 million; and tax support for the Jones Library, to $1.74 million.

Town Manager John Musante said the goal of the budget process is to minimize the roller-coaster ride caused by ups and downs of the economy and to continue being prudent fiscally and programmatically.

“We’re in a more stable place. The trick now is to maintain the same level of discipline as we construct our budget priorities for the next year,” Musante said.

Pooler said there is a solid base in the current fiscal year that sets the stage for the coming year. In the year ending June 30, 2012, the town generated a $1 million surplus on a $66.6 million budget.

“Our ability to maintain fiscal discipline in good years and bad years has been a hallmark for Amherst,” Pooler said.

Pooler detailed a 10-year fiscal trend that showed some favorable factors for the town, with small increases in excise taxes and new growth this year, but an unfavorable factor with state aid decreasing. “State aid has been a bit of a challenge,” Pooler said.

Over the last five years the town has lost $3.6 million in state aid, meaning it has become a smaller percentage of the budget. “(It’s) a tremendous challenge for us. It means we are more reliant on property taxes,” Pooler said.

The town has seen a drop from 204 employees to 190 in the last decade. “Overall I think this reflects doing more with less,” Pooler said.

One success Pooler cited was the ability to constrain health insurance costs over the last five years through creative adjustments to the benefit package and dialogue with employees.

“From my experience here in town and looking at the state, other cities and towns, I think Amherst is really ahead of the game in getting on top of that and having a successful experience, at least in the last five years,” Pooler said.

Pooler estimated the town will have $6.21 million in reserves this year between stabilization and cash reserves, making up 9.3 percent of the budget, the highest percentage since fiscal 2005, when reserves made up 11.8 percent of the budget.

The Finance Committee will use the information from the meeting to prepare its budget guidelines, expected to be released on or before Nov. 1, said Finance Committee Chairman Andrew Steinberg. These will then be sent to the town boards, town manager, school superintendent and library director.

Pooler and Musante will meet with department heads in the coming weeks, with Musante scheduled to release his budget proposal Jan. 16.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said the goal is to get to Town Meeting next spring, which begins May 6, with coordinated and balanced budget recommendations from each department.

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