Voters at annual Town Meeting in Saugus on Monday approved a $65 million budget for fiscal 2013 that restored some overtime funds for the Fire Department but cut spending from schools, the public library, and the Youth & Recreation Department. Town Meeting also voted against tapping reserve funds to disburse for arbitration awards for public safety unions.
Supporters held signs outside Town Hall and packed the upstairs auditorium to lobby for their favorite departments. “This is my library card,” said resident Rose Verderico, holding it up as she stood at the podium addressing the 48 elected Town Meeting members in attendance. “This card is not just access to books in a building. It’s access to the whole world.”
“We need to cut more evenly,” said Karen Rivera, a parent of two children in the schools. “We need to think about saving ‘our’ Saugus.”
The new budget, which takes effect Sunday, was recommended by the town’s Finance Committee and differed from separate budgets proposed by the Board of Selectmen and town manager Scott Crabtree. Each of those budgets would have eliminated, or severely cut, funding for the library, youth and recreation, and Fire Department overtime.
The library will operate on a $370,000 appropriation, but needed $424,000 to meet state funding standards. It will probably have to apply to the state Board of Library Commissioners for a waiver from minimum-hours requirements. The library regained its state certification two years ago after losing it when budget cuts forced its temporary closing in 2007.
“I don’t know how they’ll look upon that request, since we just got our accreditation back,” library director Diane Wallace said.
The Fire Department — which runs on four shifts of nine men — relies on overtime funding to operate the Essex Street Fire Station. With only $135,000 in overtime funds for next year, the station likely may only be open until September, officials said, which would leave the town with just one manned fire station.
“I am not getting up here to rattle my saber,” said Fire Chief James Blanchard. “Overtime is only used when staffing falls below nine” men per shift.
But the overtime appropriation came largely at the expense of the school budget. The Finance Committee shaved $100,000 from the schools, plus $35,000 from police overtime, to put in the Fire Department overtime account.
The schools received a total of $25.6 million, and will have to cut 14 positions, including seven paraprofessionals, six teachers, and one custodian. Other reductions could come in textbook spending, Superintendent Richard Langlois said.
“$100,000 is a lot of money,” he said. “It’s books for kids. We won’t be able to buy textbooks that we had planned.”
There was debate over $396,000 owed to police and fire unions that was ordered after arbitration by the state’s Joint Labor Management Committee. Police and fire union members in Saugus have gone as long as eight years without a wage increase.
The Finance Committee recommended referring the request to a future town meeting. Union leaders agreed to do so, but John Vasapolli, the town counsel, said state law does not allow that option. “It’s either town meeting votes to appropriate, or the parties go back to negotiations,” Vasapolli advised Town Meeting members.
Voters issued a split decision on the arbitration awards. A request to approve $43,000 to fund the superior officers contract was rejected, along with last-minute amendments to refer the awards to a future town meeting or to selectmen. The union also agreed to spread the money out over two years, and to forgo retroactive pay covering the first six months of this year.
“It’s disappointing,” said Lieutenant Thomas Coogan, the superior officers union president. “We understand the fiscal problems facing the town . . . [but] our members haven’t had a raise in eight years.”
Coogan said he will have to consult with the union’s attorney to decide what next step to take.
Town Meeting also voted to refer the arbitration award for the police patrolmen’s union and the firefighters’ union to the Board of Selectmen. Vasapolli reiterated that state law does not allow for such referrals. “The statute is clear: Either approve or negotiate again,” he said.
William Cross, president of the firefighters union, believes the Town Meeting action could be legal. “My counsel thinks it has teeth,” he said.