By James Niedzinski
---- — ESSEX — While town officials concede it is early in the process, operating expenses for the town are up by more than half a million dollars.
However, at least one — Jeffrey Soulard, who heads the Finance Committee — said he is optimistic officials will not have to ask voters for an override of tax-limiting Proposition 2 1/2.
So far, the budget for fiscal 2014 stands at a 3.5 percent increase from this year, a $529,000 increase in operating expenses.
The operating budget stands at $15,538,011 for fiscal 2014, including Essex’s projected contribution to the Manchester Essex Regional School District, as well as the water and sewer funds.
Soulard said the Finance Committee still needs to cut about $300,000 to $500,000 from the budget to prevent an override, but believes officials can reach that goal.
As far as capital expenses, selectmen requested $700,000 for design plans for a new safety building. A preliminary budget document shows the project was first proposed for fiscal 2005.
The current Martin Street fire and police station recently had its leaky roof repaired, but asbestos has been confirmed in the building.
According to the town administrator’s report dated Jan. 28, consultants are working on a scope of work needed to remove the asbestos, which is not in heavily populated areas of the building.
A feasibility study for a new public safety building was completed in the fall of 2011, after Reinhardt and Associates, an Agawam-based consulting firm, recommended the town build one. The proposed site is a town-owned plot of land off John Wise Avenue.
Money for the project would be borrowed and spread out over several years; the actual cost of construction is estimated to be $6.8 million. Work would start in fiscal 2015.
An increase of $86,083 in the Police Department’s operating budget can be largely attributed to salaries. In a letter to the Finance Committee and the town accountant, police Chief Peter Silva cited the addition of one full-time officer and the assignment of an executive officer as reasons for the rising budget.
Additionally, more reserve police officers were added in an effort to reduce overtime. As Essex moves forward with the regional dispatch center opening in Middleton, an executive assistant will have a much more expanded job and is slated for a pay raise.
Silva said the move to the dispatcher center means one thing — “doing more with less.” As the department will no longer have dispatchers, the executive assistant would act as a dispatcher in dealing with residents walking into the station and maintaining contact with the regional center, as well as taking on other roles, Silva said.
“Putting out the best product in an affordable fashion, that’s what it comes down to,” he said.
As with police officials, Fire Department officials have budgeted money that is planned to be saved from the move to the regional dispatch center.
Fire Chief Dan Doucette said daytime coverage of the station is an issue and is important for response time.
In an open letter to town officials, fire officials cited the need for a full-time fire chief during the days.
Fire officials suggested money saved from moving some operations to the regional dispatch center could be used to fund a full-time position for fire chief, which would come with an annual salary, now listed at $84,000.
The proposed position is the primary reason for the increase in the department’s budget, which is set around $332,000, an $87,000 increase from fiscal 2013.
Doucette added he might not necessarily be the person chosen for the job, but the position is needed. “(The position) hasn’t been addressed, but it needs to be,” he said.
Soulard said the Finance Committee still needs to meet with department heads to talk about more cuts that could be made in their budgets.
Even if some of the department requests don’t make the budget or are denied by the upcoming April Town Meeting, that doesn’t mean they won’t reappear on the fall Town Meeting warrant.
“People understand the overall needs of the town and work well with one and other,” Soulard said.
He said the budget is expected to be finalized in March.
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.