WHITMAN — Selectmen agreed by consensus on Tuesday, April 30 to recommend the Finance Committee put forth an Article 2 budget with an 8.5-percent assessment increase for the schools — including $350,000 in estimated excess levy funds.
Selectmen did not, however, favor a 1-percent cut to non-union clerical and administrative staff salary increases, or reducing the health agent position to part-time status, and opted to leave the question of reductions to non-mandated school busing to Town Meeting.
Town Administrator Frank Lynam also asked the board to permit estimation of excess levy.
“As long as we vote to appropriate it, it will be used to set the tax rate, and I’m estimating $350,000,” he said. “If we take that number and treat that as part of our levy, then the value of that $350,000 is reflected in the tax rate we set.”
Lynam described it as a conservative number based on the last seven to 10 years.
The budget discussion followed a presentation on excess levy capacity — the difference between the levy limit and what the town ends up actually levying — by Assessor Kathleen Keefe. Lynam said the issue had been commented on over the last several days on social media platforms.
“It alludes to some nefarious plan on my part to keep the schools from getting additional money by not capitalizing on the excess levy number that we’re presenting when we hold a [tax] classification hearing,” he said of the posts. “I want to be clear on what our process is and what our process has always been.”
Lynam noted that Whitman does not typically hold a fall Town Meeting unless there is a need to make additional appropriations. Revenues presented at Town Meeting based on growth over the previous year’s tax limit and additional property development or construction.
Department of Revenue software is used to show the town’s potential tax rate and would the levy would be and to indicate any excess levy the town may have.
“In order for us to utilize that money, we have to appropriate it,” Lynam said. “We can’t just spend it. … We would have to hold a Town Meeting to make appropriations and there is insufficient time between the time we become aware of what that number is and the time we need to set a tax rate.”
The town holds its tax classification hearings in late October to mid-November, largely because the town contracts with Patriot Property to conduct assessments of property, new construction and renovations in town. Patriot typically files that report in August, because the contract payment limits the firm to beginning July 1, according to Keefe. In Hanson, where Keefe serves on the Board of Assessors, the town uses in-house staff in the assessor’s office to inspect for the building permits as the permits come in, allowing them to “capture that growth as it comes in.”
New building permits from July 1 from one year to June 30 the next are included in the calculation.
Selectman Randy LaMattina estimated that “left $4.1 million on the table” over the last several years in Whitman and asked how the town could get that information sooner.
“The answer to that is to try to get these numbers sooner,” Keefe said, noting it would involve more collaboration between Town Hall departments. “If we get these numbers sooner, then we know where we are going into things.”
Keefe agreed “100 percent” that Lynam has been, as he described, “border-line harassing” her for the excess levy capacity figures.
The DOR requires that information by at least Thanksgiving Day to provide the town’s revenue information by December to permit the town to set a tax rate by Jan. 1 to permit billing for third-quarter taxes — or the town will have to wait until April to bill semi-annually.
The levy limit is calculated based on new growth, non-allocated local receipts, enterprise funds and free cash not yet certified until the fall.
The Finance Committee last week voted most of Article 2, with the exception of the issues from which they sought recommendations from selectmen, including school assessment — where they support 8.5 percent — non-mandated busing, cuts to non-union clerical and administrative pay increases from 2 percent to 1 percent, and reduction of the health agent’s hours.
The Finance Committee’s recommended amount for the schools line is $14,398,151, which represents the 8.5-percent assessment increase over last year, Lynam said. Lynam said any proposals the Selectmen wanted to keep would not affect the 8.5 percent.
The requested number for non-mandated busing was $396,604, which the Finance Committee reducing to $173,471 to cover the need for transport children whose parents might not be able to afford other means.
“The decision on that is obviously one that would have to be made at Town Meeting,” Lynam said.
School Committee member Fred Small said Commissioner of Education Jay Sullivan has told him that pupils on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program would be eligible to ride the bus free of charge, but Lynam said he has not received confirmation on that information. Selectmen also wanted to know more information on the number of families potentially affected as well as any need for more crossing guards.
“We have to deal with the schools on some items like that, and we haven’t done it yet,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, citing inequities between Whitman and Hanson on how programs, including foreign languages, are offered. “It doesn’t seem right to me that the kids in Hanson don’t have to be in a lottery [to win a seat in a Spanish class] and the kids in Whitman do.”
“It’s pathetic,” Small agreed.
The requested budget for a full-time health inspector was $66,789 — a 1-percent increase over last year — with the Finance Committee’s recommended budget being $40,531, reducing it to part-time status.
Selectmen objected to the cutback, citing concern for public health and the need for timely food inspections as well as the increasing number of condemnations and two hoarding situations within the past year.
The DPW superintendent’s salary was also recommended by the Finance Committee to be trimmed from the requested $100,356 (identical to the Parks and Highway superintendent’s pay) to $90,000 — a 17-percent decrease.