By BOB TUROSZ
NORTH READING – The Selectmen burned the late night oil again last week in line by line reviews of town department budgets leading up to the June 1 Town Meeting. Those heard from included the Hillview Commission, Youth Services, Elder Services and Parks and Recreation.
The Hillview Commission is submitting a $1 million budget request for fiscal 2016, about 15 percent less than the current budget year. Hillview member Peter Hemme said fiscal 2015 has been a very active year at the Hillview, with a number of improvements made, including a new irrigation system that will be coming on line shortly.
As the Transcript has previously reported, the Hillview and PBL Catering Inc. agreed to terminate PBL’s lease to manage the Hillview function hall and Hemme said there have been four responses to the Request For Proposals for a new manager.
In addition to the irrigation system, Hemme said golf course improvements included seven new tee boxes and new sod. Looking forward to the next budget year, Hemme said the spending plan assumes flat revenue growth but that assumption will be challenged by the terrible winter of 2015 and the very tardy arrival of spring.
“We’re going to be in a very challenging position this year.” Hemme told the Selectmen. For example, in a normal March and April the Hillview typically can expect to generate between $100,000 and $150,000 in revenue. But right now, “it’s anybody’s guess when we’re going to be able to open up,” Hemme said. “This is going to be a very challenging year, we’re going to have to manage our expenses very carefully.”
The long planned irrigation project is about 80 to 90 percent complete, Hemme reported. And once the ground completely thaws, a few remaining lines will be pulled through and the water will be turned on. “And we’ll all keep our fingers crossed.” Hemme said they have confidence that the new system will be fine.
The proposed fiscal 2016 budget predicted revenue totaling slightly over $1.5 million. The revenue currently assumes $50,000 of rental income from the function hall. Total expenditures, including debt service, decreases by $138,789 (8.4 percent) from fiscal 2015. The decrease can be attributed to the suspension, for four years, of the Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) the Hillview has, in the past, made to the town.
Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto’s budget recommendation concurs with the Hillview’s number of $1,028,909.
“Pray for good weather” for the rest of 2015, Hemme told the Selectmen in wrapping up.
At $159,000, Elder Services is one of the smaller budgets in general government but as Director Mary Prenney pointed out, it serves some of the most vulnerable, poorest and frailest members of the community.
Next year’s operating budget has some significant reductions, she said, based on the anticipated purchase of a new elderly van, which will mean less money spent on repairs, she said. The only problem is that they are still in the process of researching this van because the vehicle they proposed at the last Town Meeting is out of production. They’re waiting for a finished model of a substitute vehicle to be ready by the end of the month.
Prenney credited the partnership with Mystic Valley Elder Services as the reason the department is able to keep 47 North Reading seniors in their homes instead of in a nursing home. Last year that number was 35.
North Reading has over 3,200 residents over age 60 and that number is only going to grow. People want to continue living in North Reading, she said. “This is their home, where they want to age in place and hopefully with the services offered by our department, they will. These people want to stay connected to the community in the way previous generations did not.
“Building age-friendly communities is the wave of the future” and her budget contains no surprises, she told the Selectmen.
The Youth Services Department budget presented by Amy Luckiewicz was well received, at $55,158. Luckiewicz said there are nine North Reading children receiving social services from her department, all active cases. She said there was an increase in participation among K-12 students in Youth Services programs this year, including four students who continue to come to youth group although they have actually graduated. When she prepared her budget statement, she anticipated an enrollment of 125 students by June and as of March 23 there were already 123 enrolled.
Thirteen students are enrolled in the last session of safety class.
Forty-two are currently enrolled in the mentoring program, (up 47 percent).
Twenty-five are enrolled in the high school youth group (up 27 percent).
Sixteen are enrolled in the middle school youth group. (up 47 percent).
About 12 percent of the currently enrolled students have regular access to transportation.
Luckiewicz reported her department has applied for a Drug Free Community grant and she feels North Reading has a very strong application. “Former Superintendent of Schools Kathy Willis reviewed the grant application multiple times with me and we feel we have the strongest application possible.”
Much of the information for the grant application was obtained in partnership with the police, fire and school departments and none of that would have been possible without the town’s Community Impact Team, she said.
The grant itself is in response to the epidemic of opiate abuse in the state generally and Middlesex County specifically. If awarded the grant would be for $125,000 a year for up to 10 years of prevention work among North Reading youth, tackling issues like youth abuse of substances such as tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs and opiates.
Parks and Recreation
In presenting the fiscal 2016 Parks and Recreation budget, Maureen Stevens had two requests: That the town once again assume funding of the Recreation Director’s salary of $59,586 and that the department budget itself revert to a Revolving Account rather than an Enterprise Fund.
For fiscal 2016, the department is proposing a budget of $552,464. In fiscal 2009, Stevens said, the town required Parks and Rec to fund the Recreation Director’s salary. Recreation Chairman Ron Kern said that since 2008, the department has raised over $2.5 million as a result of fundraising activities the committee has committed to. “We keep challenging the community to grow that amount but we’re at the point where we may have reached our peak.”
Kern said it takes an “incredible” amount of volunteer man hours to run the events put on by Parks and Recreation. Stevens said there’s been a decline in registration in the sports leagues since fiscal 2009, when Recreation was required to assume responsibility for the salaries of the Director and equipment manager. Fees were raised from $15 to $45, she said and since then they’ve lost 913 registrations.
Recreation member Rita Mullin said the Recreation request was a compromise going back to 2007/08. Since that time, most departments in town have added back many positions that were lost “and Recreation is just asking to be made whole again.”
“Let the extra work we do be put into progressive things, not salaries,” she added.
Selectman Stephen O’Leary asked: “What’s the underlying fear here? Are you anticipating your reserves and retained earnings are going to shrink?”
“They’re not getting any bigger and they could possibly shrink,” replied Stevens. “We’re not seeing any growth.”
Selectmen Chairman Robert Maueri said the board will carefully consider Recreation’s requests and revenue plan “and make the hard decisions in the coming weeks.”