WHITMAN — A handful of residents attended a pre-Town Meeting presentation in Whitman’s Town Hall Auditorium, Wednesday, April 17 — where the annual Town Meeting will convene on Monday, May 6 to hear a summary of the town’s fiscal outlook.
“The reason we’re having this meeting is to make people aware of our current circumstances, what our budget picture looks like and what our future plans are,” said Town administrator Frank Lynam.
All information he reviewed by PowerPoint presentation is available on the town website, whitman-ma.gov.
The presentation is being rebroadcast on Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV and on the WHCA YouTube page.
Representatives of the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, schools and other town departments staffed information tables around the perimeter of the room in case those attending had questions about services or budgets after the program.
Selectmen have voted to present an operating budget that including contributions from free cash to pay for capital payments required by previous financial commitments and to provide a budget reflecting reductions in most departments as well as a 6.5 percent increase to the W-H Regional School District, Lynam said.
The Finance Committee will be making its budget recommendations in the next couple of weeks, Lynam said.
“The process continues right up to Town Meeting,” said Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson.
“Part of our issue is — and I hate to blame the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but I’m going to throw them under the bus right now — we are bound by law to fund things that the commonwealth says we need to fund and we’re supposed to get reimbursed for,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak. About $5 million of more than $8 million in mandated program costs are under-funded or unfunded.
W-H is seventh from the bottom in per-pupil spending among all public school districts in Massachusetts.
Health insurance costs also present a problem for the schools as well as for the town.
The School Committee voted on Wednesday, April 10, to seek a 12.5 percent assessment, following a transfer of more than $561,000 from excess and deficiency, leaving $400,000 in that emergency fund.
“Unfortunately, as we look at our ability to meet those needs, we come up short,” Lynam said. “I’ve heard a lot from people who feel that our taxes are too high, our tax rate is too high, they’re not getting value out of the community.
He looked up the taxes paid and tax rates charged to residents of more than 27 surrounding South Shore communities, none more than 25 minutes away.
“Our tax rate, of $15.38 [per $1,000 valuation] is 24th out of 27 communities,” he said. Only Middleboro, Lakeville and Brockton are lower. Hanson comes in at 23.
There are 17 communities with tax bills higher than Whitman residents pay.
“When you look at these numbers, what you really see is a community with needs — needs that haven’t been fully met in the past,” he said. “Sure, we’ve done some good things … but along the away we’ve tried to manage by keeping taxes low and, what’s happened is we’ve reached a point where we can’t do that anymore and still deliver the services that people have come to expect.”
A debt exclusion is being sought to remove the bond for construction of the new police station and renovations to the fire station and Town Hall from within the levy limit to fund capital expenses not currently available in the budget. While the town has no current capital plan, it is working with the Collins Center at UMass, Boston to develop such an approach.
A operational override of perhaps between $2 million and $2.5 million in the fall will be sought to fund some capital articles but the town’s future fiscal needs depend on raising the levy limit, according to Lynam.
“The total capital being requested in this budget is $3,197,000, unfortunately, we don’t have that money,” Lynam said, explaining he will recommend that Town Meeting stop work on the warrant at Article 29 and adjourn until after the Town Election.
The total municipal budget requested within the levy in Article 2 is $33,129,808 — an increase of $816,000 over last year.
Personnel costs, a big part of the budget will be $6,383,000.
Available capital within the levy is $461,980. Other funds, including free cash add up to $903,800 with $100,000 in ambulance funds going toward the cost of paying the final debt on the Town Hall, $30,000 for the third of five payments for a 2016 ambulance, $7,000 for the fifth of seven payments for a pumping engine, $42,000 for the purchase of protective equipment for firefighters and $85,000 to complete the upgrade to the radio system for police and fire.
Lynam also explained to voters the workings of ambulance and water/sewer enterprise funds, as well as how deficit accounts such as snow and ice removal, operate, and capital debts owed on buildings and equipment purchases.
“The biggest numbers in the budget right now are the school budget requests,” Lynam said. “The budget that we prepared provides $14,570,000 to W-H, $1,948,000 to South Shore [Tech] and Norfolk Agricultural, so the total budget for education this year, based on the Selectmen’s budget, is $16,518,543 — that is a $900,000 increase over last year.”
Public Works’ budget is up $80,000 — all due to the cost of hauling and disposing of trash due to global changes in the recycling stream since China stopped accepting shipments.