WHITMAN — In a joint deliberation with the Finance Committee on Tuesday, June 9, which also met that evening, Selectmen approved line item transfers required before closing the books on fiscal 2019.
Selectmen Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci said the Finance Committee had to vote on the transfers before Selectmen could vote.
“These should have been voted last week, but the Finance Committee didn’t have a quorum and today is the last day to make any of these moves for fiscal 2019,” Selectman Brian Bezanson said of a scheduled July 2 Finance meeting.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, who is traveling, and Selectmen Justin Evans were absent from the July 9 meeting.
Some transfers had been previously approved by Selectmen and had to be voted by the Finance Committee.
A transfer of $45,816.28 from Line 123 to Line 124 to fund vacation time accumulated by Police Chief Scott Benton was approved after some vigorous discussion.
“I don’t think its any secret that the chief of police is planning on retiring within the next year, possibly within the calendar year,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said. “While we are developing policies to prevent this type of accrual in future years, we’re obligated to pay unused vacation on termination of employment.”
Finance Chairman Richard Anderson said his committee’s collective concern was for the policy, which while still in development, is “long overdue.”
Salvucci wanted to know if there were any employees who could be grandfathered under any policy change.
Lynam recommended setting aside what is anticipated to be unexpended funds in the police salary line to lessen the financial impact when the chief does retire. The funds would be encumbered in an appropriation number created for that purpose, according to Lynam.
Finance Committee Vice Chairman David Codero said department heads had told his committee over the last budget season that they would be able to absorb any increases to their line items in order to save money for the town.
“This line item transfer is going to represent about $80,000 of money that was transferred from one police account to another,” he said. “The concern that I have is that, in a fiscal year that we were asking department heads to really tighten the belts, we’re getting $80,000 of transfers for unexpected expenditures. I don’t think it was prudent for that particular department head to have $80,000 to be sitting in an account when it could be used for other town services.”
Lynam argued the $80,000 represents 2.2 percent of the entire police budget. Unlike Town Hall or other departments, where schedules and costs are fixed, “in public safety, we have a number of items that are unpredictable.”
Line-of-duty injuries, for example, cannot be foreseen and not all shifts are always filled, he argued.
“If we were not doing these transfers, at the end of the year, we would be turning back $80,000 to the General Fund,” he said. “That money could easily have been spent by filling shifts we didn’t fill and for doing things that we probably should be doing that we don’t do because we’re trying to be fiscally prudent.”
He added that the only reason the transfer is being sought now is that the opportunity now exists to do it without needing to go to a special Town Meeting vote — which may still need to happen depending on how things play out.
“We’re paying for something that, essentially, the town agreed to,” Lynam said.
Benton asked what the $80,000 figure represented. Finance officials said it was cumulative transfers, including $12,000 in unanticipated costs for computer repairs.
“I come to the Finance Committee every year and I tell you that we don’t fill about 500 to 700 shifts and I tell you I can’t anticipate snow, emergencies and things like that,” he said. A mild winter helped this year.
“I didn’t know we were going to have a joint Selectmen/Finance Committee meeting that wasn’t posted, I didn’t know my name was going to come up, I didn’t know we were going to get into this, but I have no problems with getting into it,” Benton said.
Benton said he told Lynam that he thought transferring the funds was preferable to crippling the Police Department budget for the next year.
An additional $355.28 (over the $750 already approved by Selectmen) for a shortfall in payment for hours worked by the Selectmen’s administrative assistant was also approved. That salary covers hours that are uncertain from year to year, according to Lynam, who said the $355.28 — an additional shortage found when year-end payroll was completed — is being transferred from a line used to fund all salary increases when contracts were settled last year. Both boards approved the transfer.
A transfer from Line 172 (Norfolk County Agricultural High School) of $12,000 for legal costs was approved by both boards. A transfer from Line 256 to Line 257 of $2,230.42 for the FICA payment based on total salaries paid, a figure that is not clear as a year-end total until the June payroll is complete was approved by both boards. A transfer from Line 48 of $140.30 to Line 50 to close a minor shortfall in salary for the treasurer-clerical employee in the collectors’ office was approved by both boards.
Selectmen also voted to increase ambulance rates for the first time since 2016, at the urging of Fire Chief Timothy Grenno.
“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “Insurance rates are going up. Also, some legislation has been filed — which sits in conference committee right now — which will limit the level to which you are able to bill insurance companies for the use of emergency services.”
That bill would include a rollback date governing when rate increases would be allowed, after which it would be limited to a benchmark of 2 or 3 percent, Grenno said.
“These rate increases are in line with what our billing company has recommended,” he said. “It is the same Medicare billable rates which most of our neighboring towns are using.”
Salvucci said he has noticed that Whitman has, in the past, been much lower than neighboring towns.
The Board of Selectmen appointed a nine-member Budget-Override Evaluation Committee.
Serving on the committe will be: residents John Galvin and Christopher George as citizens at-large; Finance Committee members Codero and Scott Lambiase; Grenno; Public Works Superintendent Bruce Martin; Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak; School Committee member Dawn Byers; Selectmen Evans and Randy LaMattina and Lynam.
“The town cannot show that we are approving it — even though we are approving [of] it — the taxpayers have to make that decision,” Salvucci said of the committee’s title.
Police Chief Scott Benton said he and Grenno had decided to have one public safety representative on the committee.
Grenno asked why there was no representation of the town accountant or assessor’s office on the committee, but Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green said the accountant would be actively involved, reviewing figures.