WHITMAN — Residents will soon be asked to fill out questionnaires regarding the local government priorities they value — part of an effort, which will include financial work sessions with department heads, to start work on the fiscal 2020 town budget early.
“We’re approaching some pretty interesting times,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said, noting that Selectmen Chairman Carl Kowalski had raised the proposal of a community assessment survey.
Kowalski and Selectman Brian Bezanson were absent from the Tuesday, June 12 meeting. Lynam met Monday with Dr. Melinda Tarsi from the Bridgewater State University Political Science Department to discuss work on the questionnaire and Lynam has invited her to the June 26 meeting to discuss it with the board in more detail.
“It’s probably essential to our planning for fiscal ’20,” he said. “Not probably — it is essential.”
Selectman Scott Lambiase requested a budget review also be included on the June 12 agenda, and suggested it should be a regular agenda item for the foreseeable future. He said the budget season has to start earlier to get a handle on what is needed and what the town can afford.
“As we’re trying to work with the Finance Committee and trying to get a budget together that we can get into Town Meeting next year, it would be nice to have the department heads present to us … showing cuts and, within that, a narrative on how that’s going to affect services,” Lambiase said. “We need to know, and we need to get it out there to everybody, what’s going to happen if we do have to cut this budget and what it’s going to mean to the level of service that the town’s going to receive.”
Additionally, he said they should also present a level-service or level-funded budget as much is practicable.
“I think we need to be more involved and I think we need to have them come in and present to us [with a certain level of detail] that shows us what they’ve been doing historically and what they’re looking to do in the future,” he said. “We have to let the town know that we are taking this seriously.”
Lynam said the Selectmen used to be more involved in the budget process, but has relegated it to the Finance Committee over the years.
“This is the executive board of the town,” he said. “We need to set direction.”
“We have to jump in and help them [the Finance Committee],” Lambiase agreed. “we have to help set a tone, especially with the larger departments — some of the smaller ones, there’s not much they can do.”
A handful of line-item transfers were approved to fund current shortfalls and a tense discussion centered on the discovery of a calculation error regarding use of the motor vehicle fine reserve for appropriation account and how the Police Department was notified. The error means that, unless another funding avenue can be found, the department can only buy one new cruiser instead of the two approved by Town Meeting in May.
“Unfortunately, at the time we voted, there was a $14,000 credit from the state to motor vehicles that actually belonged to the Complete Streets program,” Lynam explained. “At the time we voted, we believed we had the funds to support the lease-purchase of two vehicles.”
He said he has been looking for options to retain the second cruiser, but so far does not see any. Line item transfers are not a viable option because the purchase involves next year’s money.
“The law requires that you make your appropriation based on what’s available the day it’s voted,” Lynam said.
Police Chief Scott Benton, meanwhile, expressed his irritation about not learning about the agenda item until Monday, June 11.
Lynam countered that the interim accountant informed Benton’s office through Administrative Assistant Katrina Patton the week before.
“For three weeks you’ve known,” Benton said. “Why wouldn’t you inform me as the department head?”
“I knew last week when the accountant came to me and said we had an error in appropriations and she said, ‘Katrina was very upset when I told her about it,’” Lynam related. “At that point, it would have been reasonable to assume that you also would have known.”
Benton said Lynam should have called him directly, but Lynam said Patton was advised since Benton was away.
“I was away — I have my phone,” he said. “I have to answer my phone.”
Regardless of whether, or how, the message was relayed, Selectman Dan Salvucci asked Benton if he had any ideas on how to find the funds for a second cruiser.
“Legally, I don’t know what I can do,” Benton replied. I rely on the town administrator to help me with that stuff.”
He did ask if Lynam could look into the propriety of encumbering funds from this fiscal year to the next, for example $10,000 slated to be turned in out of all other services.
“Fair question,” Lynam said.
The transfers Selectmen approved involved: $2,700 from the removal of dead animals line to animal control expenses; $165 from Town Meeting and elections line to Town Clerk expenses; $22,000 from Norfolk County Vocational Tuition line to street lighting to cover a recent rate increase; and $44,000 from Norfolk County Vocational Tuition line to the law account. Three students who had planned to attend Norfolk County Vocational, two of which were already budgeted for, will not be attending the school, freeing up the funds.
Selectmen also approved the sale of a $280,000 bond anticipation note dated June 20, 2018 and payable on May 20, 2019 with an interest rate of 2.05 percent to fund streetlight conversion to LED lights.
“When this was first proposed a lot of this was hinging on grants,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. “I just want to know where we stand with those grants right now.”
Lynam said the town is awaiting a response from the state on two grants — the Metropolitan Area Planning Council grant and the Green Communities grant — which are being sought to pay the full conversion cost. Both are reimbursement grants.
Lynam noted, as he did at Town Meeting, that the borrowing would ensure that the lights can be bought and the debt is serviced even if the grants are not received. If Whitman fails to win the grants, the net cost would be no greater than the $86,000 the town now pays National Grid for maintenance costs and rental fees each year, he argued.
“If we’re successful in getting the grants, it’s pure return,” he said, followed by a $60,000 to $70,000 per year savings on rental and maintenance after that.
“I believe the net savings on the light rentals is $50,000 and I expect that the energy savings is going to be another $20,000,” Lynam said. Even receiving only the $50,000 MAPC grant, he noted, servicing the debt over five years would mean a principal payment of $46,000 per year with interest costs of $5,600.
“The money that we pay out [with no other grant money] would be equal to or less than what we’re paying right now to rent the lights,” he said. “And then we achieve the energy savings of LEDs.”
Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green said comparable figures to other towns on maintenance contracts is difficult because the number of street lights is different from town to town.
“Right now the town is looking for ways of saving money any way we can because of the situation we’re in where we had to cut the budget drastically this year to make ends meet,” said Salvucci. “I think anything that we do that saves the town money in the long run, we need to plan ahead.”
LaMattina was concerned about the up-front installation costs as well as maintenance costs during the life of the bond.
“I don’t have any reason to believe that we would not receive the grants,” Green said. “We followed all deadlines and stayed up to date with all the requirements. … I’d be heart-broken if we didn’t receive the Green Communities, we’ve received it the last two years.”
Consultant costs for low-bidder Light Smart are $14,728, including the audit, lighting design and project management. The cost is part of the $280,000 total cost.
“There’s not many communities that fall into the timeline to apply for both of the grants,” Green said.
In other business, the board approved a three-step process for the application, evaluation and recommendation of those seeking appointment as constables. The police chief would be involved in investigating and evaluating applicants and make recommendations to Selectmen.