WHITMAN — Selectmen voted by a slim margin Tuesday, April 24 to recommend a budget to Town Meeting that includes the entire 9.5 school assessment increase within the levy limit — and to call for an operational override to fund the $603,000 needed to fully fund other departments.
Selectmen Brian Bezanson, Randy LaMattina and Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski voted for the override recommendation with fellow board members Scott Lambiase and Dan Salvucci voting against.
A special election for an override question will take place Sturday, June 2.
LaMattina supported the operational override provided department heads be able to make a fair impact statement on Town Meeting floor, at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 7.
During discussion, Lambiase and LaMattina had argued in favor of including 7.5 percent of the school assessment within the levy limit, placing the remaining 2 percent within an override.
Fire Chief Timothy Grenno, who spoke against an operational override said after the meeting that his cellphone was already blowing up with messages from angry members of the firefighters’ union.
“I think the board has put the town into a difficult position tonight in placing an operational override on town departments that are already strapped to fund one budget,” Grenno said. “I think it would work a lot better, I guess is the best way to put it, if everybody shared a little bit of the pie.”
He said he does not have a lot of confidence in the town’s willingness to pass an operational override.
School Committee member Fred Small, who attended the meeting in support of the assessment, pledged to support other departments in the effort to pass an override.
“I can only speak on behalf of myself, but you have my undying support for the override,” Small said after the vote. “It’s not our intent to pit one department against another, it’s just our intention to try and survive.”
A 9.5-percent assessment increase puts Whitman’s share at $1,151,295 and a 7.5-percent increase puts it at $908,000. If it were part of an override, it would grow by $22,700.
“This has to be coupled with a real understanding that next year we hit a real wall unless we make some progress [with budgets],” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam. He said the immediate course of action, should Town Meeting approve the 9.5 percent, would be to meet with department heads to determine what must be done to ensure a successful override.
The Finance Committee had come back to the Board of Selectmen with a recommendation to place 5 percent of the schools’ assessment increase, or $603,210, within the levy limit, which would have required an override to fund the remaining 5.5 percent — or $602,783 — for the schools. That represents $12,667,403 in the levy and $602,783 outside the levy limit. The total budget increase is 10 percent.
Fiscal 2018 began with a $30,382,000 budget, according to Lynam. This year, requests totaled $32,488,000. There were 29 articles included in the first draft of the warrant totaling $2,500,000 in appropriations.
Articles recommended inside the levy now total $828,433 with articles funded from other sources, including free cash, the ambulance fund, the police fine account and borrowing total $1,743,000.
“In preparing this budget, we removed 13 articles totaling $724,508,” Lynam said. “Each of the schools we’re participating in have significant increases.”
South Shore Vo-Tech, seeing an increase of 10 Whitman students, is up 8.9 percent, Norfolk Vocational-Agricultural is up 10.6 percent and WHRHS is up 9.5 percent in their assessments.
Salvucci, who also serves as the Whitman representative to the SSVT School Committee, stressed that school’s entire budget is only up 3.9 percent.
“The problem is half [the W-H] budget is funded by the state and that revenue is not growing,” Lynam said.
Small said the 9.5 percent assessment increase represents a 2.6 percent increase in the overall W-H budget.
“I am unbelievably uncomfortable with this proposition,” Kowalski said of the Finance Committee’s recommendation for a 5 percent increase within the levy for the schools. “It appears to be arbitrarily a 5-percent assessment and then hoping for a successful override to grant the schools the money they say they need to just keep things going.”
Kowalski noted a strong school system is what attracts families to settle in a town.
“Our police department and our fire department are both departments we can be proud of as a town,” he said to a large crown attending the meeting, including Grenno, Police Chief Scott Benton and Deputy Chief Timothy Hanlon. “They are also well-equipped and well-compensated — and they’re well-peopled.” He admitted that the DPW have routinely been budgeted as “the fourth out of four.”
Kowalski said the town’s budget needs to expand and an override is the only way to accomplish that.
“I’m totally uncomfortable, however, asking for half the money we want to give to the schools and they basically scrape by with what they have now,” I’d like to see the assessment go up. If that means that the Finance Committee has to go back and deal with the other departments and see what can happen there … then it has to go that way.”
Bezanson said he completely agreed.
“I know you’re shocked,” he quipped. “I’m not one for overrides. I’m not one for higher taxes … but why do we subject the schools, all the time, to being the ones that have to have the overrides?”
Bezanson echoed a frequently voiced position of Kowalski’s — “At some point, we have to decide what kind of community we want.”
Salvucci asked if discontinuing non-mandated busing could be a solution, but Lynam argued the money involved was such a small part of the total budget it would not have much effect, and that the bus contract does not allow the town to do much more than reconfiguring a small number of buses.
“It appears that the Finance Committee is looking for direction on this,” Kowalski said. “I would like to see this board give them a little bit of direction.”
LaMattina noted that Selectmen made it very clear to the Finance Committee the previous week that 5 percent was not an acceptable number for the school assessment increase.
“We made it very clear we didn’t want to see less than 7.5 percent guaranteed going to the schools,” he said. “I’m saddened that this was even presented in front of us because this is a complete 180 from what we talked about showing more fiscal stability and ttying to do the right thing — not only by the schools, but by every other department in town. I’ll tell you right now, there’s no way I’m supporting 5 percent.”
LaMattina said he felt they provided sufficient direction last week.
“At some point, we have to come up with a number and maybe and override is going to have to be on both sides,” Lambiase said. “There’s going to be a lot of pain felt on both sides.”
“I think the citizens will do the right thing,” Bezanson said, noting the town has long been one of the more financially stable communities on the South Shore.
Lynam said that, while not enough, 78 percent of new growth funding has been used to finance school budgets.
“The problem is, we’ve been allowed to build a budget that’s not sustainable without our partner in the budget, and that partner being the state, continuing to contribute,” Lynam said. Much of the School Department’s costs, such as utilities and retirements, are not controllable, either. “We’re creating an us-and-them and that’s not the way to fund an operation. It may also be an issue of what area is more sensitive to the voters.”
During the discussion, Grenno asked if, in effect, the town was being asked to vote a second time on the $310,000 override passed last year to add three firefighters to the department.
“I get what the schools are looking for and what maintains basically what they are doing now and helps us further the school district,” Grenno said, noting his son attends W-H schools and he thinks highly of the districts’ quality. “But you’re basically playing Russian roulette with all the other departments in town.”
He said he did not understand the logic.
“If the schools need the money, then I support them, let’s go for an override and let’s support the schools and get them their override,” Grenno said. Lambiase agreed that the schools have to have a dog in the override hunt, too.
“Otherwise, there’s no incentive for the schools to participate in this,” he said. “And they’re the ones that can convince the town that we actually need this — we need it on both sides.”
Kowalski and Bezanson said they have been hearing about departments being pitted against each other for 14 years.
“We’re still looking at a small section of the town [government] to cut up, to make it up if this override doesn’t work,” Lambiase countered. “That’s just not going to work, it would be devastating.”
Small said the citizen in him “understands exactly where you’re coming from. The School Committee member has a little bit of blinders and I want to fight for every single thing that we can do for the schools.”