DRACUT -- Police Chief Kevin Richardson came before selectmen Tuesday night to reiterate his department's commitment to public safety in the wake of staffing cuts that have depleted his ranks over the past few years.
Responding to unspecified comments on a local blog, Richardson said, "We are running low on police officers. This problem didn't happen overnight, so it won't be solved overnight. It's getting dangerously low and my officers are starting to feel the strain."
Richardson defended the quality of his officers, saying, "I've been on the Police Department since 1984. I've worked with a lot of great police officers over the years. I can honestly tell you that looking back and seeing what I have now, I have never been prouder of the Dracut Police Department than I am right now. We have a young group of officers who always back each other up and are always looking out for each other. They're working under difficult conditions and it's something we have to address. I'm here to tell you the community is safe."
Selectman Joseph DiRocco defended Richardson and the Police Department.
"I didn't feel this needed to be addressed. You come here monthly and tell people how many calls you make. The average person has no idea. They don't know what police and fire do, they only know when you need them. Other than that, they don't think of them."
"The chief and I started within a year of each other. We've been fighting for manpower since we were kids. I can't believe we're at the point where it's still bad," said Selectman Tony Archinski, a longtime Dracut officer.
"I want to let you know that we're going to fight for more manpower. If we can squeeze it in, we're going to squeeze it in. I talk to officers all the time. They're straight out," said Archinski.
"It's not like it was even 10 years ago. My guys are running across town to back up another guy. I'm afraid we're going to have a bad accident going across town to back other officers up. I appreciate any help I can get from the board. I appreciate your support. We should probably get together with the new town manager and sit down and address this," said Richardson.
In other business, Acting Town Manager Ann Vandal unveiled a budget proposal she called "fair and equitable" that would add a firefighter and police officer to their departments.
Vandal's proposed budget of $70,643,979 is a 5 percent increase over the fiscal 2014 budget of $67,121,286.
"Over the past few years, we've had to work through some challenging fiscal constraints that have begun to come to a head," Vandal said. "We've taken a number of steps to control costs and grow revenue, including the meals tax that was approved at Town Meeting and reducing our health-insurance costs."
Vandal's proposed fiscal 2015 budget assumes a level amount of state aid with this year's budget as well as an increase in the assessment for Greater Lowell Technical High School of about $350,000.
"(The Greater Lowell Tech assessment) is something I've taken into account on the revenue side of the budget, but hasn't been included on the expenditure side," said Vandal.
The Finance Committee began its budget deliberations March 3, Vandal said, adding that if selectmen want to hold a work session, "I'm happy to do it and we'll go through the budget."
The town will carry an estimated $450,000 snow and ice deficit into the next fiscal year, but Vandal said she's proposing to reserve $150,000 in the fiscal 2015 budget to cover some of that shortfall.
"We'll be looking to tighten our belt. Another option is free cash," Vandal said.
Dracut had $821,000 in certified free cash as of July 1, but Vandal expects that number to increase slightly.
"I would think we're going to have to use a portion of free cash to make up for the snow and ice deficit. Unfortunately, there were no federal disasters declared so we won't see any federal money coming in," Vandal said. "There's movement in the Legislature to divert additional Lottery revenues to communities because most communities are in the same position we are with snow and ice deficits."