WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Jan. 9, expressed a measure of support for a suggested long-range budget planning strategy to identify municipal priorities and revenue sources.
Finance Committee member Shawn Kain presented his proposal for a five-year plan at the meeting, broadcast by Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV.
“It’s not a bad idea to look at things from a different viewpoint and come up with a plan,” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said. “Before you set up goals and objectives, what you have to have is a consideration of what you value as a town … what kind of town do we want to be?”
Kain compared municipal finance to a book he read on archeological digs, in which protocol dictates that only a portion be dug up on initial discovery to leave some work for future generations.
“They have this degree of professional humility and they don’t want to do unintentional harm,” he said. “Our situation here is really much different because of time [demands on the budget process] … It’s important that we look at the current best practices so that we can be as confident as possible that we’re making really good recommendations.”
He said his presentation on strategic financial planning came from a humble place “with the intention to do good for future generations.” Other members of the Finance Committee attended the meeting in support of Kain’s proposal before their own regular meeting.
He urged creating a bylaw for a five-year capital plan as a good first step, and one encouraged by the state, which can provide the language for such a bylaw.
“I would oppose any capital bylaw until all revenues that come into the town that are used for capital go into the general fund,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said. “We have segregated cash because of revenue receipts — receipts for appropriation — that make it very difficult for the town to utilize that money in a broad-based way.”
While he said he thinks it’s a good idea to start thinking of finances “in a more formal way,” Lynam said many communities that have adopted such bylaws have commercial growth Whitman doesn’t see.
A lot of Kain’s proposal comes from the Finance Committee Handbook provided new members by the town. While the town’s Annual Report is clear and thorough, Kain said a budget should be a complement to that.
A report by the Finance Committee at Town Meeting, used by many towns to give voters a better idea of the state of town finances, is a helpful practice from which Whitman could benefit as well.
Action steps he suggested for Whitman include: setting up a subcommittee involving members of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee along with the help of the town administrator; involving the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at UMass Boston; a financial forecast and a financial policy combined with a five-year plan.
“For me, that long-range sustainability — not necessarily whether we can afford something this year, but putting together a plan that’s going to forecast accurately what we can afford 10 years from now,” he said was a crucial aim of a long-range financial forecast.
That type of planning, however, should not preclude expending the funds for immediate needs, such as in public safety situations, Kain advised.
“You bring up a lot of questions that don’t have any answers, to me right now anyway,” said Kowalski.
“There are a number of things we do annually,” said Lynam. “In preparation for last year’s budget, we used a document that I created and maintained since 2001 that allows us to project — to some degree — trends in value of property and growth and of course that’s an important part of this process.”
The challenge that the town will continue to face, however, is its limited ability to grow and a limited commercial base from which to grow, Lynam noted. He doesn’t see that changing with growth continually coming from residential growth.
“I can predict, with some degree of accuracy, what our revenue will be for the next five years,” Lynam said. “The problem is I can show you that most of that revenue is already spoken for.”
He did say that it was a good idea to get people together to take a look at the problem.
“You’re basically saying the same thing that Shawn is saying about a five-year plan, except you’re making judgments about a five-year plan before people have sat down to look at it, because you’ve been looking at it for 20 years,” Kowalski said.
Lynam agreed that might be an unfair perspective.
Selectman Dan Salvucci added that the center of town is one of the best town centers around because of the health of the businesses there. Infrastructure is also sound. He echoed Lynam’s assertion that funds such as the ambulance account at the Fire Department “take care of a lot of things the town doesn’t have to pay for,” but stressed that, too will be an issue in the future.
“Having a plan like [Kain is] talking about, may look at that and we may be able to come up with some way of recognizing areas that need to be looked at and repaired before they break,” he said. “I think that’s a great idea.”
In other business, Selectmen approved Building Commissioner Bob Curran’s request to receive increases at a higher then normal rate than normal in his last two years of employment as provided under the Lexington Plan, ahead of his planned 2020 retirement. The town no longer offers the benefit to new hires, but the commissioner is one of the few officials still eligible for the program that helps maximize retirement benefits.Lynam is the last town employee eligible, but said his retirement plans would not permit him time to take advntage of it.