As the two towns approach a difficult budget season, Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV is producing a series of interviews with stakeholders in both communities.
“By The Numbers,” debuts at 6 p.m., Friday, Feb. 1 with Whitman resident and former Finance Committee member Shawn Kain. A regular schedule for the show is still pending.
“This is a new program that will focus on an issue that is actually a major topic of discussion by town officials in both Whitman and in Hanson, homeowners, parents, educators and — yes — even some conversation on social media,” Producer/host Kevin Tocci said to introduce the first show. “What are we talking about? We’re talking about budgets.”
That is planned to encompass school budgets, department and town budgets, right up to the state’s budget.
“There’s no necessary order in which they appear, but each of them have their own importance and are part of the fabric of the communities,” Tocci said in an interview with the Express. “Some of their information, some of their experience is in varied areas.”
Kain, a teacher at Brockton’s addiction recovery high school is also a business owner and has been vocal in advocating a long-range budget plan for Whitman. He says he has no plans to seek a seat on the Board of Selectmen, but stresses that decisions made there affect people and accountability is needed.
“When you’re in the classroom it’s really like the front line of an organization that starts, really at the Board of Selectmen,” he said. “I feel like when there’s a bad budgetary year, programs like mine are marginalized.”
He said that when the organization is not in good shape, the lives of everyday teachers, police officers, firefighters and others can feel uncertain about their welfare. He began his involvement by attending Finance Committee meeting to learn the “nuts and bolts” of the process.
Kain suggested that the School Committee’s efforts at securing increased state aid, for example, holds out false hope.
“People have to be told the bitter truth, they should be told that, realistically, we’re not going to get more money from the state,” he said. “If we do, it’s just going to be these small amounts of money, nothing that’s going to create a sustainable budget.”
Tocci asked Kain about transparency and current budgeting practices in Whitman.
Also slated to appear in episodes that have already been recorded are Whitman businessman and former Selectman Richard Rosen, current Whitman Selectman and former Finance Committee member Daniel Salvucci, School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes, a Whitman native who now lives in Hanson and Whitman Selectman Scott Lambiase, who is spearheading the town’s budget timeline planning and works for the town of Duxbury.
“The budget is always the most difficult time of the year,” Hayes said in the episode he recorded with Tocci. “You have two towns and the finances of each town changes with the needs of the town … both towns needed police stations, both towns are at the particular point where they both need highway departments. The budgets are on the backs of the taxpayers, more or less.”
Programs with Hanson officials are also planned, Tocci said, including Town Administrator Michael McCue and a member of the Board of Selectmen. He also plans to sit down with department heads such as police and fire chiefs in upcoming programs.
Rosen, who served as a Selectmen in the 1980s after winning a six-way race for a vacancy on the board, has been out of public office for some time and cautioned that, like most residents his current view of the budget process is from the outside in.
“It wasn’t easy times back in those days, because it was a few years after Proposition 2½, and, frankly I think it was a good thing,” Rosen recalled.
In one year, officials had to cut $1 million from the pre-regionalization school budget. But in 1984, a sewer project debt exclusion was approved. He also outlined how the current library and the senior center were built.
“We had financial issues, but we managed to resolve them back then,” he said, noting he has heard talk of a financial crisis every year at budget season for the past 30 years and that finger-pointing generally ensues.
“Everybody blames [Town Administrator Frank Lynam] for all the problems and it’s not Frank’s fault,” Rosen said. “Frank is the messenger. So it’s the old ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’ Back in the ’80s with the business manager, it was the same thing.”
The bottom line, Rosen said, is a revenue shortfall. He noted his residential and commercial developments have helped the town but have not been enough to close that gap. Whitman can’t afford to shift the tax burden to commercial properties without endangering small businesses.
The great police and fire departments, schools and library as well as a park that is better than most, bring people to buy homes in town, Rosen said. Attracting business is harder, he noted, because space is harder to find.
Salvucci, who has the perspective of serving on the South Shore Tech zero-based budgeting, had been a financial officer with Star Market before his retirement.
“You start with zero and justify every single dollar,” he said of the SSVT budget system. Flexible building heat systems and use of Scituate’s solar fields for electricity helps control SSVT’s utility costs. “We run South Shore Tech like a business to keep costs down.”
He advocates that Whitman’s departments adopt a zero-based approach and that underfunded and unfunded mandates be addressed.
“The state needs to look at what they’re doing and what they’re asking school departments to do,” Salvucci said about the burden of unfunded mandates.
He echoed Rosen’s comments on the town’s residential/commercial tax rate in view of the town’s revenue needs.
“If we change it, we’re going to lose business,” he said. “They’re going to leave.”
He spoke with Tocci about ideas under consideration for meeting budget needs such as possibly going for a debt exclusion to remove the balance of the Police Station project from within the levy limits and the need for a new DPW building.
“I would vote to put it on a ballot and let the people decide,” he said.
Hayes also spoke about the problems of obtaining a quorum at town meetings and how social media hinders people’s willingness to serve in local government as well as the damage done to the tax base through the competition from online shopping at the cost of local businesses.
Hayes also offers an explanation of how the annual school assessment is calculated, said Tocci, who also wants to schedule state budget officials to appear on the show.