Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

September 17, 2009

Solving a budget puzzle: Emergency funds for schools, no leaf pickup among proposals

By Bethany Bray and Brian Messenger

Town leaders are still searching for the right pieces to solve the jigsaw puzzle that is Andover's currently unbalanced 2010 budget.

Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski estimates the town's deficit to be $1.4 million, after a property tax growth deficit figure was revised and Town Meeting voters approved a hotel tax increase on Aug. 31, that will bring $320,588 in additional revenue for the year.

Both town and school leaders are working on lists of possible cuts, negotiating with labor unions for contract concessions and pouring over budgets line by line in preparation for an Oct. 7 Special Town Meeting.

Several warrant articles have been submitted in hopes of helping the schools close a budget gap without impacting students, including taking money from free cash and the stabilization fund - the town's "rainy day" money. A private citizen has also submitted a warrant article to increase the meals tax in town, which was defeated by eight votes at the August Special Town Meeting. Another idea is to eliminate curbside pickup of leaves.

More pieces of the puzzle may come together tonight, Sept. 17, as the school and finance committees join selectmen for a tri-board meeting at 7:30 p.m.

Schools ask for $1 million from rainy day funds

The School Committee has submitted warrant articles asking for sums "up to $500,000" be transferred from both the stabilization fund and free cash to the school and town department operating budgets, to offset the FY2010 budget deficit.

Stapczynski passed out copies of the warrant to attendees at Monday's selectmen meeting, just hours after it closed on Sept. 14. He emphasized that the two warrant articles asking for stabilization and free cash funds were not written by him, and town departments would not accept money from either, despite the wording "school and town department operating budgets."

In past budget discussions, both selectmen and Stapczynski have shied away from touching the town's rainy day monies, noting that it offers a short-term, one year fix.

Unions differ on concessions

Despite renewed efforts from town and school leaders to negotiate pay concessions, it appears the unions representing teachers and firefighters don't plan on budging.

Firefighters, the Andover Education Association and town employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are the only employee groups in Andover who so far have resisted pleas to forgo any of their 3.5 percent cost-of-living raises this year.

On Monday, Stapczynski said he and AFSCME representatives are "working very hard" to come to an agreement, and he may have something to announce soon. AFSCME membership includes town Public Works and Plant & Facilities employees.

The School Committee sent a letter earlier this week to AEA president Tom Meyers, urging the union representing teachers, instructional assistants, licensed practical nurses and secretaries to give up 1 percent of members' 3.5 percent cost-of-living raises this year. Such a concession is expected to save the School Department $421,612.

AEA's approximately 50-member executive board voted against opening up its contract for renegotiation in a near unanimous vote, said Meyers.

On the municipal side, it appeared early last week that the firefighters union was headed toward an agreement with the town to accept a raise of 2.5 percent instead of 3.5 percent.

But the potential agreement hinged on solving a grievance over ladder truck staffing, according to firefighters union President Thomas Agnew.

Because Stapczynski has decided not to restore the two-man ladder truck team that was broken up in July to cut down on department overtime costs, Agnew said the union has filed for an independent arbitration hearing.

Agnew said the loss of the ladder aide position endangers firefighters and violates their contract. Barring the restoration of the position, he said any pay concession is unlikely.

Part-time employee health insurance on the table

A 6 p.m. executive session before tonight's tri-board meeting will include discussions on strategy to approach unions regarding benefits. Selectmen touched on the subject at Monday night's meeting, noting that employees working 20 hours per week or more are eligible for health insurance through the town.

Part-timers who get benefits include 16 town employees working 20 to 25 hours per week and four working 26 to 30 hours per week; 72 school employees who work 20 to 25 hours per week and 32 who work 26 to 30 hours per week. Between individual and family health care plans, town part-time workers cost the town $227,724.48 per year and school employees cost 1,236,608.88, according to Human Resources Director Candace Hall.

Possible cuts to leaf collection

One of the budget cuts proposed by Stapczynski is elimination of leaf collection by the department of public works. Selectman Mary Lyman spoke out against the idea, asking to see alternative suggestions.

Stapczynski said he would "revisit" the idea of cutting leaf collection. An alternative, he noted, is for residents to buy a vehicle sticker and use the compost site on Bald Hill, High Plain Road, for leaves.

DPW Director Jack Petkus said leaf collection could not be delayed or shortened, because the same amount of leaves fall every year. Petkus said he also researched hiring a private contractor that would use a vacuum truck to collect piles. The cost would average $100 per property, he said.

The School Committee is also developing a list of proposed cuts, which will be fine-tuned and discussed at tonight's tri-board meeting. On Tuesday, committee member Dennis Forgue indicated the list was not yet ready for release.


LIST: Possible non-school cuts

Town Manager's Preliminary FY2010 Budget Reduction Plan for Town Departments (as of 9/11/09)

Police - $112,000

Reduce overtime by reassigning personnel and training; 1.5 FTE patrolmen vacancies, and 1 military deployment

Fire/Rescue - $90,000

Reduce overtime by flexible assignment of ladder-aide position; 3 FTE firefighter vacancies, and 2 potential retirements in January

General Government - $58,000

Reduce overtime; Expense reductions in Legal Services, Medicare, and other office expenses.

Community Development - $27,000

Reduction in sanitary inspection services; 0.4 FTE sanitarian vacancy.

Public Works - $83,000

Eliminate leaf collection; Street light reduction; reduce solid waste tonnage; expense reductions; union concessions

Plant & Facilities - $69,000

Bald Hill Compost Site revenue; custodial service reorganization (reassigning custodians from buildings with shortened hours); expense reductions; union concessions.

Library - $41,000

Reorganization; Expense reductions; 1 librarian vacancy (Beth Mazin was promoted to director, replacing Jim Sutton; her previous job as assistant director has not been refilled).

Other - $16,000

Various expenses transferred to revolving funds.

TOTAL: $496,000

Note: FTE = full time equivalent. Most of the existing and anticipated vacant positions above will be held open through the remainder of FY10.w