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Amherst Town Manager John Musante unveils budget plan that preserves most services

  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>Amherst town manager John Musante
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Amherst town manager John Musante

AMHERST — Enhancing the quality of life in residential neighborhoods, improving the town’s transportation infrastructure, supporting renewable energy and promoting long-term fiscal sustainability are components of Amherst Town Manager John Musante’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget.

The $20.17 million spending plan, presented by Musante to the Select Board and Finance Committee Wednesday, is $587,496, or 3 percent, higher than this year’s $19.58 million budget. It preserves the same services and number of employees as this year, he said, but also contains “targeted new investments.”

“The budget really reflects the services provided and the hard work of all our employees,” Musante said.

One of the proposals is to make a contracted electrical inspector a full-time employee.

“It’s an effectiveness proposal that will further strengthen inspection services,” Musante said.

Other proposals are adding $25,000 to veterans services to handle an increasing workload, $6,850 for facilities maintenance to care for the North Amherst School where the Amherst Survival Center had been located and $1,000 to offer “dependent care” stipends for Town Meeting members.

In most cases, Musante said, his budget reflects trying to hold on to what the town has and find ways to reduce expenses. This includes introducing paperless billing in the finance department and searching for ways to minimize emergency calls by fire department ambulances, especially those associated with disruptive behavior of college students.

“We are actively working with UMass on ways to reduce demand,” Musante said.

Musante also seeks to increase the number of joint police patrols by Amherst and University of Massachusetts police.

“You can expect to see more of that, an expanded version of that, as we head into warmer weather in the spring,” Musante said.

The town manager said he will be meeting with UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy about continuing a strategic partnership that nets the town about $350,000. The budget assumes this as revenue, along with an unrestricted gift from Amherst College of around $90,000.

The budget calls for Leisure Services and Supplemental Education to continue partnering with the schools on three after-school programs, which enrolled 250 children this year, up from 192 last year. Musante said it was successful as more parents enrolled children in richer programs with access to specialists and transportation home.

The limited number of new initiatives is a reflection of the lack of money available, he said.

State aid, including money earmarked for the schools, is $13.66 million, which is $50,760, or 0.4 percent, higher than the $13.61 million received this year.

The budget is largely built on local sources of revenue, with new growth at $500,000, up from $425,000 this year, motor vehicle excise taxes rising from $1.42 million to $1.58 million, and meals and lodging taxes expected to increase from $640,000 to $673,297.

Among priorities that Musante didn’t include in the budget is the money needed to cover the full $180,000 in social services spending that came from a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant that the town is no longer eligible for.

With Amherst losing its status as a mini-entitlement community, Musante said, he expects the town to get $450,000 in transition funding. But this still means Amherst will need to find $90,000 for social service spending to support endeavors such as Craig’s Doors, the agency that oversees the homeless shelter.

His recommendation will be to ask Town Meeting to approve the additional funding through a separate article, though the source of funding is not yet certain.

Finance Committee Chairman Andrew Steinberg said the town manager’s budget is supposed to be a “consolidated document” and that proposing spending outside it is a slippery slope.

But Select Board member Alisa Brewer said Musante’s approach seemed sensible because if the town doesn’t get the money through grants or other sources, residents would have sought their own action. “I’m sure we would have seen a citizen petition anyway,” Brewer said.

Another priority will be to set aside $14,425 for a special election should the Regional School District Planning Committee come back with a recommendation, likely in March or April, to move to a regional elementary school district that includes Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury.

Other items on the priorities list include:

■$100,000 for an economic development coordinator to work with local and state agencies, institutions of higher education, real estate professionals and others to strengthen the tax base.

■$61,303 for a new police officer.

■$63,608 for a new inspector to handle inspections at commercial locations.

■$61,601 for a second new inspector, pending the recommendation from the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group on whether one will be needed to oversee a new rental permitting system.

A $302,000 Green Community Grant will cover the purchase of LED streetlights, saving $40,000 a year in utilities costs. Musante plans to use this savings in the Department of Public Works budget so fewer salaries are paid through special projects and capital.

Even with that, $96,502 in salaries will still come out of these projects, reducing the flexibility for deploying DPW employees, such as in filling potholes.

Musante said his budget plan is aligned with the preliminary instructions set forth by the Finance Committee.

“My budget proposal meets that budget guideline and is also, I think, responsive to the Select Board budget guidelines,” he said.

The budget contains assumptions about collective bargaining agreements with the DPW, police, fire and service employees, all of which expire June 30.

“I am committed to settling those contracts in a timely manner,” Musante said.

The budget benefits from the fact that the town was able to keep health insurance rates steady. Amherst saved $100,000 this year when school retirees agreed to switch from the state’s Group Insurance Commission plan to the town’s plan.

Built working from projections in October, the budget could change depending on Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget proposal, which is expected to be released Jan. 23.

Also included in Musante’s plan are a $4.26 million water fund and a $4.1 million sewer fund, of which $300,000 will be applied toward the Other Post Employment Benefits account, and $535,895 solid waste and $1 million transportation funds.

The Finance Committee will meet with Musante tonight to begin discussing the budget proposal. All documents associated with the budget are available on the town’s website.

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