WHITMAN — Prior to a joint meeting with the Finance Committee Tuesday, Jan. 21, the Board of Selectmen unanimously voted to accept the report and budget recommendations from the Budget Override and Evaluation Committee to avert a fiscal 2021 Proposition 2 ½ override. It was the only item on the agenda before the joint session with the Finance Committee.
All but one had the unanimous recommendation of the BOEC, and were based on the recommendations of the findings reported by consultant John Madden’s review of town finances.
“All of these measures defer the inevitable,” the budget committee’s report stated. “Even if all recommendations are adopted, an override will most likely be required in FY 2022, albeit a much smaller one.
BOEC Chairman Randy LaMattina said the key factor Madden determined to be at the heart of Whitman’s financial situation was where the operating budget — with an annual increase of 4.86 percent — is growing.
“He notes that school growth, from 7 to 8 percent, are not the norm,” LaMattina said. “His recommendation, and there will be a vote later on in this meeting, was to restrict operational growth to somewhere between 2 to 2.5 percent and a school assessment of 5 percent. … They’re not concrete numbers, there may need some adjustment here and there, but these are what he considers the norms for surrounding towns and towns meeting our demographics.”
The recommended moves include:
• Restructuring of the ambulance account without taking needed funds away from the fire department;
• Moving funds from the motor vehicle fine account into general townwide operations;
• Use of sewer/water indirect costs to offset costs within the town budget article at Town Meeting;
• Controlling town operations increases to 2.5 percent of the overall budget increase and education not to exceed a 5 percent assessment increase;
• As a financial policy, refrain from using free cash to fund ongoing expenses;
• Seek funding for the feasibility study for a DPW building project;
• Funding the $750,000 for the first phase of the Whitman middle School Project (Finance Committee member John Galvin and Fire Chief Timothy Grenno abstained from this vote at the BOEC meeting);
• Development of a strategic plan for municipal finances; and the
• BOEC’s recommendation against seeking a Proposition 2 ½ override.
School Committee member Dawn Byers spoke about her dissenting vote favoring an override after Selectman Dan Salvucci asked for the reason for that vote.
She said that, while she saw a lot of information on how to infuse more money into the town’s operating budget, she saw no expenditure reports for how the new revenue would be distributed.
“I know that the schools did cut from their budget last year, so I feel that to recommend not having an override this year doesn’t serve the people in our community, the families in our community, working families in our community. I think we need to recognize our true expenditures with our real revenue.”
LaMattina said nine votes against seeking an override spoke to the dire nature of the move.
“We know we have a middle school, possibly, on the horizon, we know we have a capital service project,” he said. “We do not know what the number is for the school district. … If we look at our history, 5 percent will not be sustainable for the schools — we get it — they will need an increase.”
He said the town is trying to get through this year, working with Hanson.
“I think this override will be the last time we can ask taxpayers for money for quite a long time,” LaMattina said. “We better get it right.”
Moving into the joint meeting with the Finance Committee, the session reflected Finance Chairman Richard Anderson’s introductory remark that, “undoubtedly we will disagree on some of the paths” to get town finances where they need to be.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam advocated identifying the town’s budget tolerances as a first step in preparing a budget with a 2.5 percent increase limit as the goal.
Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina advocated more transparency in that process.
“Right now, the general public in Whitman does not know the details of what was involved in last year’s decision to stay under an override,” she said. “The closed-door meetings, I understand, involve less formal discussions than when you televise, but they have to be open to the public so they know what’s at stake.”
She also questioned how an override could be taken off the table when they don’t have all the numbers yet, and argued it does not take six months to educate the public on the need for an override.
Lynam said he would be “hard-pressed to find 100 people that would regularly be interested in what’s going on, that doesn’t mean we don’t provide it.”
Most of what he does at the meetings is working with a calculator and the town has committed to a more open and fluid approach.
Ottina said she appreciated the difficulty, but said information coming out of the meetings should be publicized. Lynam agreed.
Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly urged that a working group could ensure the budget is accountable to the town’s budget survey conducted last year.
Finance Committee member John Galvin, who also served on the BOEC, disagreed that a working group meeting was necessary, because the FinCom is charged with hashing out that information and bringing it to the people at Town Meeting.
Anderson said that, if the next step is for the Finance Committee members to follow up with budget managers, “I think we’re in a good place.”
In discussing the Capital improvement plan, Lynam said the wording for any article would be tricky.
“We’re going to have to work out that process,” he said. “It would be a big change from what we’ve done.”
The capital committee will be holding its next meeting in the first week of February.
Noting that WHRSD is the biggest part of the budget, Anderson brought up the issue of paid school transportation.
“I think this is a discussion that needs to take place,” he said. “It’s time to consider alternate funding sources and maybe address some of the schools’ needs.”
School Committee member Fred Small, who attended the joint meeting, said students on the Superintendent’s Council had said last week that the early start didn’t bother them.
Connolly said early start times generally affects boys more than girls, and the Superintendent’s Council members who spoke were all female.
They also did say the time change was hard for them in the beginning, as well.
Lynam cautioned that the issue raises a myriad concerns, particularly when school doors don’t open before a certain time, which causes a hardship for working parents.
“Massachusetts has the earliest start time, generally, across America and we are one of the earliest within Massachusetts,” Connolly said. “We also have to think of how effectively our money is spent.”
Most buses arrive at the school empty because parents already drive their children, she said.
Finally, Lynam discussed the MSBA grant invitation for a Whitman Middle School project, requiring a vote at the May Town Meeting on whether to call for funding for a feasibility study. Components of that study will include demographics, utility and design.
“I don’t see anyone ever approving us renovating that building,” Lynam said. “If we’re going to do something there, we’re most likely looking at a new building.”
The first step is the assessment of need through a feasibility study which can be funded out or either a debt plan, free cash or a one-time capital override.
“I was persuaded that the feasibility study will give us the information we need to present to the public,” Lynam said.