WHITMAN — In a joint meeting with the Finance Committee Tuesday, April 17 — which involved some heated exchanges between Selectmen and Finance member Shawn Kain — officials discussed the town’s ongoing revenue problem and how to balance the fiscal 2019 budget.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam has already “X-ed out” 20 articles from the annual Town Meeting warrant, including those seeking new DPW vehicles, public safety radio, data terminal and radar equipment and a reduction in requests for police cruisers and another which reflects a change to the approach in repairing the library roof, as well as some schools maintenance articles. Some others, including a new utility vehicle for the Fire Department, are in question.
“You’ll see the articles that we went through and said, ‘Can’t do it’,” he said. “What I’m saying is we’ve gone bare-bones and there’s a danger in this because we’re now removing items that involve capital maintenance.”
It also leaves the town’s budget still $1 million short, Lynam said.
“Some of these are critically important,” agreed Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson, noting his committee had not yet voted on recommendations. “We’re going to look at budget scenarios that may reinstate some of them or that may actually remove additional ones.”
Selectmen plan to continue that deliberation on Tuesday, April 24 following the Finance Committee’s work in the interim and a special School Committee meeting at 7 p.m., Monday, April 23 when its members are expected to make a final vote on assessments to the towns. Recommendations on annual Town Meeting warrant articles will be voted on next week. The annual warrant must be posted by April 30 for the May 7 Town Meeting.
Four special Town Meeting warrant articles were recommended by a 4-0 vote of Selectmen — Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski was absent — and 7-0-1 votes of the Finance Committee — with Kain abstaining. A fifth article involving town speed limits was recommended by Selectmen.
Right now, Whitman Selectmen are weighing the options between three “what if” scenarios involving the tax impact of each one.
“I would be really opposed to an override that funds part of the deficit and doesn’t fix the problem,” Lynam said.
Based on a $16.01 per thousand tax rate, tax bill using the current value with stabilization added, based on a median single-family home worth $278,400 would be $4,596.38 per year with a 50-cent per thousand increase or $139.20. Calculating the current value and adding the school assessment increase would put it at $4,667.12 per year with a 79-cent per thousand increase or $219.94. The current value with both amounts would increase it to $4,821 with a $1.31 per thousand increase or $364.70.
“That’s a fix that solves the problem — for this year,” Lynam said. “But we haven’t solved the problem and with due respect to people who think we have to do more planning, we have a revenue problem.”
That median single-family annual tax bill is now $4,457.18.
“I don’t think any of us are seriously recommending that W-H accept 5 percent,” Lynam said, reminding the board that Whitman is not the only town player involved in the school budget. “We’re probably not going to do 7.25 [percent].”
The town is also taking a serious look at the $381,357 cost of non-mandated busing. While it would not likely be eliminated, discussion will continue to center on subsidizing only part of it.
There are currently 775 students who ride the bus and live outside the 1.5-mile mandated busing radius around schools, putting the per-student cost at $493.
A user fee of $165 per year per student is being looked at to help reduce the cost of non-mandated busing by one-third or $86,245. The School Committee is also looking into a possible suit against the state for unpaid regional transportation funding. [See related story].
“Again, the title of this document is “What If?” so none of these things are etched in stone,” Lynam said. “It’s merely a suggestion for another way to reduce some of the cost that the town is experiencing from non-mandated busing.”
School Committee member Fred Small said the impact of decisions parents make based on user fees will help in calculating how bus routes can be reconfigured and how much would ultimately be saved.
“I think the impact is greater at the high school with people not riding than at the elementary schools,” Small said.
Selectman Brian Bezanson questioned the fairness for large or low-income families. Lynam said non-mandated busing fees only impact families not entitled to a ride in the first place.
“We did set this up and they are counting on it,” Bazanson said. “It’s become a common practice.”
Finance Committee member Marion Mackerwicz said that, as a parent, she appreciated Bezanson’s words but didn’t see the problem.
“If it comes down to will they get an education or if we’re going to cut teachers, I think that walking can be seen in a positive light and I think we’re looking at that,” she said. “We have to look at what creates revenue — the schools do, busing doesn’t.”
But Bezanson questioned if the savings would be enough to improve education. Small said that staggering school start times has already saved the school budgets about $400,000 a year.
“That would be something we’d love to see back to normalcy, but for now it’s just not in the cards,” Small said. “You could establish a family threshold so it would only cost X-amount of dollars per family.” He also suggested a financial need waiver could be considered.
“We’re trying to present this in a way that is mindful of everybody’s interests,” Anderson said.
Lynam said Selectmen had set a 2-percent guide for increases in non-contracted salaries, and requestors who exceeded that were “communicated with” and advised about that position.
“This is very difficult,” Selectmen Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci said. “We haven’t seen anything like this since 2 ½ went in. … No way am I a fan of doing layoffs … I will not even consider that, me personally, but I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“Whether it is 9 percent of 11 percent, the budget is devastating to the town,” Lynam said because of constraints of Proposition 2 ½ and the makeup of Whitman’s largely residential tax base.
He argued that the quality of the schools is one of the most important factors in maintaining that tax base.
“We have been fortunate, over the years, to have a good, well-balanced school system, but we’re beginning to lose it,” he said. “We have less services, we have limited language arts in middle school. … When the schools come in and present a budget, what they’re trying to do is meet the basics.”
Anderson said it is important to continue that discussion.
“We obviously have a unique situation,” Anderson said. “While we’re waiting for the schools to certify a budget number, we still have to move forward with recommendations for the rest of the budget.”
He said time is not on the Finance Committee’s side and agreed more time is needed to work on the budget next year.
Lynam and selectmen also argued that the real solution can only be found at the state level.
“We’re not in a unique position here,” said Bezanson, while acknowledging that the town could have acted sooner when state local aid funds were reduced. “There are many other towns in this commonwealth that are in the same boat and that boat is sinking.”
Selectman Randy LaMattina, among other issues, advocates restructuring the police station debt to free up about $860,000 from the levy limit and sees the damage done to the school budget from underfunded regional transportation mandate.
“But I will not strip-mine departments to fund another,” he said of the school budget, while advocating more than a 5-percent assessment increase. “Something needs to be done and it has to start with the people in this room.”
Kain then weighed in with his request to create a strategic capital plan, focusing on Fire Chief Timothy Grenno’s budget requests and recent comments in response to Kain’s last appearance before Selectmen to advocate more responsible budgeting.
“I really hadn’t intended to reply, but I’m going to,” Lynam said, noting he appreciated Kain’s enthusiasm and efforts to stress his points. “You are part of a committee. This discussion occurred in your committee. You have been zealous about establishing a capital plan this year.”
But he added it was made clear to Kain and the Finance Committee in February that the town was not prepared to build that.
“I really enjoy your comments about capital improvements because right now we have no revenue source for capital [work],” Lynam said, raising his voice. “The one revenue source we might have … is committed to paying for a debt that already exists. So, if you’re the guy that has the answers, tell me where it’s coming from.”
Kain argued that there is a misconception that a plan is only needed when there is financial growth.
“We need a plan when there is not growth,” he said. “When we’re in negative feedback loop we’re in triage. The plan tells us what to do. People need to see that we’re in triage, they need to see the financial trends and see what we’re struggling with so that this is an open, transparent process.”
He said the job of Lynam and the Board of Selectmen is to set priorities.
“I think that’s what a leader does,” Kain said arguing that Selectmen should meet weekly until at least 10 p.m. to create budget policy. “We’re in crisis and we need leaders who are going to have swift, decisive action to help us get out of crisis. We don’t need passive leadership right now and I feel like we’re getting passive leadership.”
Board members took strenuous objection to that characterization.
“You have the answer for everything but you haven’t given one damn answer yet,” Lynam said. “You talk about manuals. Tell me how that’s going to increase money, I want to hear it.”
“It doesn’t matter how we got here, we’re in a problem,” said LaMattina at another point. “Your solutions right now, although I agree with some of them — I agree with some of the practices, do not solve the problem right now. As the appointed and elected officials in the town, we need to solve the problem and not argue with each other.”
Mackerwicz argued there should be ways to develop revenues in town and that guidance should come from Selectmen.
“They voted for you to provide that guidance,” she said.
Bezanson later in the meeting said he was offended at the charge that the board lacks leadership and he found it “humourous” that Kain followed his comments critical of passive leadership with abstentions on the special Town Meeting warrant articles.