Easton Town Administrator David Colton presented a preliminary budget memo to Selectmen this week that, above all else, urged caution.
While the town administrator said "no retrenchment" will be made in staffing levels and the overall budget projection, he said the town is not yet ready to fully restore Easton to pre-recession levels.
"I’ve laid off firefighters before," he said. "I don’t want to do it again. The danger is we add back too fast in a way we can’t sustain it."
Colton's $69.9 million preliminary budget presented a $979,286 deficit, which will be chipped away in coming weeks and months before a final budget is presented at May's Annual Town Meeting.
"It’s a process we go through every year and always get to zero," Board of Selectmen Chair Colleen Corona said. "There's no chance of going into next year with a deficit. It’s legally impossible."
The preliminary budget, which projects a 2.46 percent revenue increase and 3.44 percent increase in operating expenses, calls for few additions to staffing.
Priorities, Colton said, lie with public safety. He plans to fund two new firefighters and two new police officers for half the year. Doing so will allow for flexibility after the first half of the fiscal year.
"The reason I’m proposing that is so in January a year from now, we can look at the budget projection for 2015," he said. "If things are looking good, we can appoint two firefighters and [two] police officers in the middle of the year. That way we know we’re going to be able to keep them. If things are looking OK, we can appoint one, If they’re looking bad, we don’t appoint anybody."
Adding two police officers will bring staffing totals to pre-recession levels of 34. Two additional firefighters will bring firefighter staffing levels to 38, which is also a pre-recession level, he said.
"The goal is to get all four groups of the fire department with nine people," Colton said.
Colton also hopes to increase the Department of Public Works budget by 3.53 percent to help fund technological advances to the department's geographic information systems.
Colton said the budget increase will be minimal because of money saved with town-owned streetlights, which Easton recently purchased from National Grid.
"It’s chock-full of information about the town," Colton said of the GIS systems. "It describes the town by any dimension we can possibly think of."
Colton is also projecting a 2.28 percent increase in General Government expenditures, 2.78 increase in health and human services expenditures, a 2.96 percent increase in culture and recreation, an estimated 6 percent increase in employee and retiree health insurance, and a 5 percent increase for Southeastern Regional School.
With the town's projected expenditures increasing by 3.44 percent, Colton allowed for a 3.5 percent increase in the school's operating budget.
"This has worked very well for us in the past," he said of the school department's budget. "We generally get that cooperation. I don’t expect that to change."
The next steps, he said, are to wait for the school department's budget and "monitor the Massachusetts budget process."