Published in the April 21, 2016 edition
By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – June Town Meeting is still six weeks away and none of the town budgets, including the school department, have been nailed down yet, which is another way of saying everything remains a work in progress.
Nowhere on the general government side of the ledger is this truer than the Department of Public Works budget, since that department went through a well-publicized upheaval in March stemming from a drug use investigation and that investigation remains ongoing.
Since DPW Director Richard Carnevale resigned last month, Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto presented the DPW’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017.
Gilleberto addressed the elephant in the room right away, before touching on any of the budget numbers.
“There is an ongoing administrative and criminal investigation. However, some preliminary information has resulted in a review of the DPW budget which is the reason for the modifications,” he said.
Gilleberto noted he has an obligation to recommend a budget to the Selectmen and Finance Committee prior to Town Meeting. Time and further analysis may result in additional modifications between now and Town Meeting on June 6, he stated.
“This budget proposal reflects the best information we have as of today,” he added. “The evaluation will be ongoing into fiscal 2017 and there could be potential modifications up to and including Town Meeting.”
The DPW is currently operating under Acting Director Robert Moylan, who has a three-month appointment and the town intends to advertise for a permanent replacement this week, with applications due on May 2. Gilleberto thanked Finance Director Liz Rourke for her assistance in putting together this revised budget as well as Moylan, Town Engineer Michael Soraghan, Water Superintendent Mark Clark, Building Superintendent Julie Spurr-Knight and Administrative Assistant Jackie Studley.
DPW manpower, past and present
In the current budget year which runs until June 30, the DPW has a total of 27 authorized salary positions, Gilleberto said:
The DPW director, two superintendents (one building, one for water), one town engineer, two administrative assistants, one general foreman and 20 DPW union positions. (The general foreman is also a union position). One of those other 20 is carried in the Parks and Recreation budget.
Today’s staffing looks much different. Of the 21 union positions, two were vacant as of February, eight resigned in March, one remains out on workers’ compensation, 10 are currently working.
Gilleberto is recommending a $1.9 million total budget for fiscal 2017.
Gilleberto’s staffing recommendation for fiscal 2017 reflects contractual obligations and he said evaluation of the department’s manpower needs will be ongoing over the next several months. All fiscal 2016 positions remain proposed to be carried in next year’s budget at this point. Gilleberto is proposing to fill four of those positions by June 1 or sooner, including three in the Highway Department and one in the Parks Department. The TA is proposing to carry three of the general fund positions in the Salary Pool worth $121,877 and funding for an additional three positions will be carried in the water department salary budget worth $146,239.
There will also be a likely reduction in DPW wages worth $86,000 attributable to the fact the DPW replacement workers will be hired at lower rates than those who resigned. Gilleberto proposed to transfer that money to the salary reserve account.
Gilleberto said the DPW staffing will continue to be scrutinized by Acting Director Moylan and potentially beyond.
Overtime budget down
The overtime budget request is down for fiscal 2017, reflecting the fact that there will be many new hires next year. “An employee may have at the top step of the wage scale and when we fill the vacancies on step one that results in a savings. Scheduled DPW non-water department overtime has been reduced by $31,000, which will also be held in the salary pool and procedures and controls for the authorization of overtime are being developed.
Water department overtime won’t change because of the highly regulated nature of state and federal requirements in running a water department, he said. Finance Director Rourke explained the water department budget is an enterprise fund and there’s no mechanism to hold those funds aside while the evaluation process runs its course. The enterprise fund doesn’t have as much leeway. “With the controls that are going to be put in place for overtime, I don’t see it will be an issue.”
When you add up the savings from the salary step schedule, the reallocation of overtime and the three positions being moved aside, the total is $238,000. But Gilleberto stressed the proposal is to allocate this money to the salary pool while the ongoing evaluation of staffing runs its course.
Selectmen Michael Prisco noted there’s still 2000 hours in the overtime budget and asked that it be evaluated between now and Town Meeting.
All street lights could be turned on
Turning the page to a different area of the budget, Gilleberto noted the fiscal 2017 budget includes an anticipate 9 percent increase in electricity rates from the Reading Municipal Light Department. Even so, with the RMLD ongoing project of replacing street lights with LEDs, the street lighting budget should see a decrease to $65,000.
At that number, the town is proposing to reactivate as LED street lights the numerous street lights that were turned off years ago in a budget-saving move. RMLD is working on a two-year time line to convert all street lights to LEDs, he said.
Water rates to rise
The budget carries a very preliminary recommendation to increase water rates by 6 percent, Gilleberto said, with the three positions carried in salary contingency worth $146,000.
North Reading was notified just last week that its major water supplier, the town of Andover, is transitioning to a tiered billing system, which triggers an annual 5 percent increase in the rate North Reading must pay for water every year for the balance of the contract, which runs through 2019.
Prisco complemented Building Supt. Spurr-Knight, who has been on the job a little more than six months, on her outstanding performance so far.
The Selectmen will hold another meeting on the general government budget on Monday, April 25, when they will attempt to reconcile the budget requests with available revenue and there will be a public budget hearing on Monday, May 9.