TOWNSEND -- As the town prepares for a structural deficit going into fiscal 2014, the major budget goals are to maintain services as best as possible, said Town Administrator Andy Sheehan.
"The three primary purposes in governmental budgeting are public safety, public education and public works, so we'll try to focus on those," Sheehan said. "In light of the challenges that we've had, we've been in sort of survival mode for the past several years because of the downturn in the economy and loss in local aid and locally generated receipts. In that sort of survival mode, our goals are to continue to provide services that we've been providing and do it in a balanced fashion."
Sheehan announced the town's budget projection for fiscal 2014 as approximately $18,592,000 at the Tuesday Board of Selectmen meeting. The amount represents about a two and a half percent increase over last year's budget and will include the cost of education, which represents about 55 percent of the general fund budget.
The top priority for this year's budget is public safety, said Sheehan. The cost of public education is out of the hands of the town. Sheehan expects Nashoba Valley Technical High School to submit its budget in early February. And North Middlesex Regional School District Superintendent Joan Landers will be coming to speak to the Board of Selectmen on Feb. 12 about that district's budget.
The town will be beginning the new fiscal year with a structural deficit of approximately $100,000. After the recent proposed override was rejected by voters, the fall special Town Meeting voted to appropriate $27,000 from reserve funds. They used another $50,000 from ambulance receipts. Selectmen are also taking into account an additional $29,610, which represents half of a dispatch supervisor position that was approved last spring. The position had not yet been filled when the appropriation went to fall Town Meeting, so half of the position's budget was cut, but next fiscal year, the full cost will be part of the budget.
"So (the deficit) sort of gives us an initial challenge before we even get into working on the fiscal 2014 budget," said Sheehan.
The town will be looking for savings through additional revenue and will also be looking at contractual obligations, including trash disposal and health care.
Each year, trash disposal costs the town about $625,000. To assuage the costs of total tipping fees, the town is looking at ways reduce the town's total tonnage.
Lunenburg, which has a pay-as-you-throw system, produces about 1,500 tons of trash a year, which represents half of the trash that Townsend produces a year.
At the Monday night Board of Health meeting, which Sheehan attended, the board discussed purchasing 64-gallon totes for each household.
However, said Sheehan to the selectmen, this would not ultimately glean a huge financial savings for the town. The totes themselves would cost about $200,000, said Sheehan, and he estimated the tonnage would be reduced by about 10 percent.
Selectman Sue Lisio said while she appreciated what the Board of Health had to say, economically she didn't feel it would properly address the town's financial troubles.
"I think it's time that we start asking the public for some feedback on this subject," she said. "I have heard form a number of people who think it's about time we do a pay-as-you-throw (system), or at least some kind of scenario of it."
The Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen will ultimately have to agree on the plan, said Sheehan.
Health insurance rates for fiscal 2014 haven't been announced yet. In fiscal 2013, health insurance cost the town about $900,000. As part of the savings consideration, the town is looking at incentives to encourage employees to leave the town's plan and join a spouse's, but nothing has been officially decided.
Other variables are still pending that will ultimately affect the budget, such as local aid.
As of now, said Sheehan, "We're feeling pretty confident right now that we'll have level funding of local aid (for fiscal 2014.)"
"There are some indicators that revenues may be better in fiscal 2014 than fiscal 2013," he said. "Indicators at the state level in terms of state revenue projections."
No official projections have been announced, but the indicators are based around some corporate, personal and income taxes, among other things, said Sheehan. One such factor is that the state will begin collecting sales tax from Amazon.com beginning on Nov. 13. Although the effect on Townsend will be indirect, it will ultimately affect revenues on the state level. Stability in the state budget will be more likely to create stability in local aid.
"If they're bringing robust revenues, it gives a greater level of certainty that local aid would be held harmless," said Sheehan.
Within the next couple of weeks, said Sheehan, he expects that there will be some negotiations on the state level to come to an agreement on fiscal 2014 revenue projections. The first real details will come on Jan. 25, after a Massachusetts Municipal Association meeting in Boston.
"They're essentially a lobbying group that represents cities and towns in Massachusetts. The governor typically attends that meeting and reveals local aid numbers," said Sheehan. "It'll be a good first indictor of what the various branches of state government are thinking about for local aid. They wouldn't throw something out there that's unreliable."
But, he added, as of right now, the question of local aid remains uncertain.
"There are still a lot of question marks," he said.
For now, the town is moving forward carefully.
"We want to make sure we're not making assumptions that have no basis," said Sheehan.