PEPPERELL — As residents prepare to vote on the proposed override of Proposition 2 1/2 for the Town of Pepperell next week, Chief David Scott would like to inform residents about the impacts the measure will have on the police department if it does not pass.
Voters are being asked to consider a $1.4 million override on Monday, May 13 to address Pepperell’s structural deficit. Voting takes place at the Varnum Brook Elementary School from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Without an override, the town originally planned multiple layoffs, including two police officers, for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts on July 1. However, late in the budget season, Pepperell’s Board of Selectmen voted to eliminate the finance committee’s reserve fund and reduce capital spending, in addition to using money from its free cash (savings) account to save jobs.
“The problem with this situation is that free cash is not meant to be used for the operating budget and to fill in for the structural deficit,” Chief Scott said. “If the override fails, there’s no money left for emergencies, like if an employee gets hurt or a building is in need of immediate repair.”
“The depletion of our savings account adds much uncertainty. The stopgap measure does not repair the town’s deficit, and it means we will be back in the same situation next year without corrective action to address the deficit and replenish our savings.”
A situation like this occurred in 2014, when officials held a special town meeting to take $200,000 out of free cash for mold remediation at the police station. If the override fails, the town will have less than $200,000 total in its free cash account. Chief Scott believes that this is a dangerous position for the town to be in, as budgeting best practices call for 5 percent of a city/town’s total budget to be held in free cash. In Pepperell’s case, this should be $1.6 million for fiscal 2020.
Although no Pepperell Police officers are scheduled to be laid off if the override vote fails, Chief Scott fears that with a looming deficit the following year, and the continued threat of possible layoffs, officers will look to transfer to cities and towns with more stable budgets.
“It’s a shame. I have officers who want to stay but also have mortgages and families. They can’t wait for another override vote a year from now and I really can’t blame them,” Chief Scott said. “When you hire and invest in good people you obviously want to keep them. This constant state of financial worry that we are in tends to repel quality candidates. We’re already down two officers, and we are unable to assign an officer to Pepperell’s schools as a result. If Pepperell cannot recruit and retain the best new officers, it will affect the quality of life and public safety throughout our community.”
If passed, the override will also allow the Pepperell Police Department to begin addressing its aging building and equipment, both of which now pose as health and safety concerns to officers and residents. The station’s roof leaks and it is in need of a new HVAC system for heating and cooling and proper airflow. Mold has already started to grow back and the town may need to fund future remediation.
“We need an effective police department, and we need a functioning police station,” Chief Scott said.
Chief Scott has also not been able to make critical improvements and repairs to equipment. The department is operating with an aging fleet of cruisers, and officers’ portable radios do not function properly due to connection issues.
Last year, officers responded to a home for a well-being check on a resident. Upon arrival, officers needed to contact dispatch to request emergency medical services. However, because their portable radios could not connect to the town’s system, one of the officers had to use the family’s home phone to call 911.
“Frankly, that situation and others like it are embarrassing to us and should be embarrassing to everyone in Pepperell,” Chief Scott said. “Our citizens expect us to have working equipment to ensure that we are able to properly and safely do our jobs, and protect the residents we serve.”
Residents looking for more information regarding Pepperell’s budget situation can view the town’s budget page at town.pepperell.ma.us/614/FY-2020-Budget.