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Newbury voters set to decide fate of near-$1m tax increase

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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Newbury residents will decide this week whether to raise taxes by nearly $1 million to avoid what officials warn would be steep budget cuts.

On Tuesday, voters will take up a $950,000 Proposition 2 1/2 override to fund $790,000 in general government operating costs and a $160,000 increase in the town’s assessment to the Triton Regional School District in fiscal 2012, which begins July 1.

The override, or permanent increase in the town’s property tax cap, would add $321 to the tax bill of an average residential home valued at $434,744.

The Board of Selectmen proposed the override based on the unanimous recommendation of a financial task force selectmen created last fall in anticipation of a difficult budget season.

The task force, which included selectmen, the Finance Committee, Newbury’s three Triton Regional School Committee members, and a Planning Board member, concluded that the added tax revenue was critical for the town to maintain key services.

“We need the override to continue Newbury as we know it today and to deliver the services that people have come to expect,’’ said Finance Committee chairman Frank Remley, mentioning as examples road maintenance, snow plowing, schools, the library, the senior center, and beach cleanups.

Remley said Newbury has a recurring deficit because its costs are rising faster than revenues, but he said the town has largely exhausted previously used short-term remedies, such as collecting back taxes.

He said that the task force took into account that Newbury had the ninth-lowest average single-family tax bill among 36 area communities it surveyed.

Town officials are preparing two alternative budgets for the May 24 annual Town Meeting, one for if the override passes in Tuesday’s election and the other if it fails.

A ballot committee established recently to promote the override reached out to voters through a website (newburychoices2011.org), mailings, and neighborhood gatherings, according to David Powell, a leader of the group and the Planning Board representative to the task force.

No group has formed to urge a “no’’ vote, but Linda Allen, chairwoman of the Republican Town Committee, said she has spoken to residents who are “quietly opposed’’ to the override.

“I think they are concerned for the folks that haven’t had a job for awhile, the elders that are on fixed incomes, what this override would do for them,’’ she said.

Allen said she herself is “torn’’ over whether to support the question.

“I pay a boatload of taxes and I don’t want to pay more,’’ she said, but she added that she worries about the depletion in the ranks of town departments. “It’s quite a dilemma.’’

Joseph Story, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said he, too, hears from residents who say they cannot afford the additional taxes. But he supports the override because “I really believe the town of Newbury is broken and we need to fix it.’’

“We don’t have enough money to run the town,’’ Story said, pointing to significant cuts that already have been made over the last few years, including reducing by half the number of public works employees, cutting police positions, and reducing library hours and services.

“I think there are people out there who believe we can continue to cut and my question to them would be, show me where,’’ Powell said.

Remley said the town projects an $800,000 budget gap in fiscal 2012. Among the contributing factors are rising health care costs; several years of decline in state aid and local revenues; a $200,000 deficit in the snow and ice removal account that has to be repaid next year; and the need to eliminate a $130,000 deficit in the town’s free cash account.

A preliminary budget developed by then-town administrator Chuck Kostro, before he left last month for another job, called for $340,000 in cuts, according to Remley.

He said the Police Department — which would lose the equivalent of four officer positions — the library, and the Council on Aging would be particularly hard hit.

The override would eliminate the need for those cuts.

It would also fund the $330,000 cost of closing the snow and ice and free cash deficits; and the $120,000 cost of making short-term repairs to the condemned Public Works Department garage and replacing some DPW equipment, Remley said.

A final $160,000 would fund an increase in the town’s Triton assessment.

Remley said town officials view its assessment as a reasonable one, and that, regardless, the town would be obligated to fully fund it if Triton’s other two towns, Rowley and Salisbury, agree to their assessments.

Even if the override is approved, the town will not have a “gold-plated budget,’’ Remley said. “This is basically keeping our noses above the water line.’’