WHITMAN — Arguing the necessity to “reset” the town’s financial process, Town Administrator Frank Lynam on Tuesday, Feb. 19 presented a budget analysis, including a proposed two-year wage freeze for town employees that — coupled with an override and a debt exclusion to take the police station out of the levy limit — could help create a sustainable financial future.
“It really comes down to a decision on what kind of community we want to be and where we want to put our resources, but there is no magic bullet here,” Lynam said. “If these ideas don’t work, then we’re going to have to downsize the municipal operations. There’s no other way to do it.”
Selectmen voted 5-0 during a joint session with the Finance Committee to authorize Lynam, along with Selectmen Scott Lambiase and Randy LaMattina, to begin wage freeze discussions with union representatives.
Lynam said he would invite a coalition of bargaining unit representatives — as well as the department heads for the first meeting — to begin a transparent conversation. When “brass tacks” bargaining gets underway, the confidentiality of negotiations would be respected.
“Growth is the key measurement [for that reset],” Lynam said. “We cannot fund multi-million dollar increases when growth is limited to $970,000 per year.”
The fiscal 2020 budget increased by $2.7 million over 2019. If the wage freeze, override and debt exclusion go into effect, it would mean a levy availability of $1,292,000 — $600,000 of which from free cash could be used for capital expenses and the remainder would be earmarked for the stabilization account.
Currently, the town raises $25,343,000 in revenue, with 89.2 percent of that coming from residential taxpayers, 5.3 percent is commercial, 1.25 percent is industrial and 4.13 percent is personal property.
In order to raise $2.5 million, to make the town financially stable, the tax rate would have to increase from $15.38 to $16.90, increasing the median family household tax bill by $467.40.
“The challenge here is still one of making these budgets work,” Lynam said. “We have to contain our growth. We have to find a way for the larger departments to work within the limits that we’ve discussed.”
He argued the town needed a comprehensive budget plan that limits increases to revenue raised from each year, and said the task requires cooperation from all town departments in conjunction with the town’s financial team.
Lynam also defended recent informal conversations he has held with representatives of the teacher’s union —with prior knowledge of both the superintendent and School Committee members [see related story page one] — as a talk about his concerns ahead of seeking Selectmen’s permission to start the dialogue on a wage freeze.
“I had said a couple weeks ago that I wanted to look into that, when I had a conversation … with the superintendent and assistant, [Selectmen] Chairman [Carl] Kowalski and the Finance Committee Chair [Richard Anderson], we talked about a couple of issues, one of them being kindergarten and another being the elephant in the room — our budget,” Lynam said. “I mentioned to them at that point that I believe we would be looking for wage concessions this year so it should not have been a surprise.”
He described the talks as casual conversations, in some cases, with people he has known for years.
“I have not met for bargaining purposes with any member of any union,” he said.
During those conversations, Lynam said he outlined the budget situation and his plan to seek approval for negotiating a wage freeze and that he would certainly reach out to the School Committee.
“If the School Committee took that as end run around them, they shouldn’t be,” he said, stressing there was no intention to do more than have a simple conversation about the town budget.
aiming to save
The proposed wage freeze is estimated to save $396,580.47 in town departments — including $2,538.49 from Lynam’s salary and $1,756.49 from Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green’s salary. The School District wage freeze could add up to $780,000, based on Whitman’s share of the present assessment and this year’s wage and salary increases.
“Without making adjustments, we’ll be short $3 million … so, clearly, we need to do all this,” he said.
Kowalski agreed with Lynam’s account of the meeting, called by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak to discuss a petition circulated about full-day kindergarten. Kowalski also said he was the person to bring up the question of whether the School District would be interested in a dialogue about wage freezes.
Anderson added that the Finance Committee agreed not to discuss the specific plan for wage freezes until the unions were informed that that was the direction town officials were thinking about. He said the second round of discussions with department heads would begin soon as they begin the work of mapping out a budget strategy, with an eye to meeting again with Selectmen on March 13.
“I think I speak for the entire board when I say that we’re prepared to make some very difficult decisions about the future of this community,” Anderson said, noting a “significant correction” would be needed to give taxpayers the confidence that the town has a sustainable budget for at least the next five years.
Town Accountant Kenneth Lidell explained that the budget analysis was based on annual town reports from fiscal 2015 through 2019, particularly the general funds expenditures lines, to reflect budget trends.
Lynam noted that increases such as 14 percent for police, 31 percent for fire services, 22 percent for public safety as a whole, 23.8 percent for general government and 34 for schools [34.7 percent for the W-H district, 32 percent South Shore Tech and 15 for Norfolk Agricultural] are unsustainable.
“Each of those budgets exceeds our ability to generally raise money,” Lynam said. “It doesn’t take a MENSA candidate to figure out that we have to make a number of adjustments in order to make this system work.”
He advocated talking to other towns in the South Shore region to seek budget controls.
Selectman Dan Salvucci, Whitman’s representative to the South Shore Tech School Committee countered that it would be very difficult for that district to hold on an increase for eight towns.
“I don’t know what the other communities are going through, but when you look at these numbers — education is expensive, I’ll grant that, but we have to pay for it from within our revenue stream and we’re not doing that right now,” Lynam said. “South Shore’s five-year increase is 32 percent. … The problem with these comparisons is, when the numbers are small, they don’t stand out as much.”
He said Chapter 70 money goes directly to the schools, which in towns like Abington goes into the town’s general fund for school use, but goes straight to regional districts. Lynam said it’s not as if the town wouldn’t contribute to the schools, but when the funds go directly to the regional schools it can look like the town doesn’t contribute — and they do.
Selectman Brian Bezanson suggested a pre-town meeting forum, perhaps at which town departments could staff informational booths on how the budget would affect them. A member of the Finance Committee suggested an idea that the board liked better — giving each department a chance to make a presentation to such a meeting.
Kowalski agreed, suggesting that — as Lynam had to him — that Article 2 is not always considered a budget document because it is generally seen first on the night of Town Meeting.
“There’s not enough time to digest it,” he said. “It becomes more real if there’s more time.”
Selectmen also voted, in the first of two required votes, to refinance some outstanding municipal bonds — for the police station — representing about $275,000 over the 11-year life of the refunding bond, in financial benefit to the town after issuance costs are paid.