WHITMAN — The use of capital stabilization funds enabled the town to avoid an override ballot question — this year, Town Administrator Frank Lynam announced to the nearly 200 voters present at the start of the Monday, May 7 annual Town Meeting.
Capital stabilization was used to pay capital debt for the police station and Town Hall renovations as well as on a bond taken out in 2000 for limited repairs to Town Hall.
“The simple fact is that we can no longer raise enough money to fund the services that the residents of Whitman have become accustomed to receiving,” Lynam said of the $36,814,122 budget resulting from collaboration with all town departments, the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. “We are presenting this budget with the realization that the town will need to increase its levy in future years in order to continue funding town services at our present level, and to meet the current and future capital needs of the Town.”
Lynam estimated there is only about $180,000 left in capital stabilization.
The fiscal 2019 budget is up $1,898,402 from last year.
Lynam warned residents that increases in fixed costs such as technology, public safety, education, solid waste, veterans’ services, health life and liability insurance, County retirement and other post-employment benefits are outstripping the town’s ability to fund the budget within the confines of Proposition 2 ½. Work on the fiscal 2020 budget will have to begin next month, beginning with a comprehensive review of our revenue, expenditures and capital assets toward developing that budget.
“The alternative to this would be to significantly reduce services and the quality of education we offer our youth and permit our capital assets to deteriorate over time,” he said.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson presented the “road map” for town spending in the coming year.
“This is in response to the extremely difficult budget we face this year,” Anderson said. “While we do not agree with each other, we all recognize the benefit of strategic planning and fiscal restraint.”
He offered the analogy that the Selectmen drive the fiscal car while the Finance Committee plans the route, but voters at town meeting decide whether to make the trip at all. Anderson also argued that the town’s position is due as much to unfunded or under-funded state and federal mandates as from spending and limited revenue.
“We have a long road — a long haul,” Lynam said after the Town Meeting, which he said went very well. “I can tell you right now there’s no way we can fund next year’s budget. We can’t continue down the road we’re going down an that’s why I wanted to make that clear tonight.”
There was an initial question, once the meeting got under way, from resident Elaine Williams on how the electronic voting devices would be used. Selectman Daniel Salvucci agreed with Williams’ suggestion that the devices be used in all questions.
“We’re paying the money to use these devices,” Salvucci said. “It seems to be working. Does Town Meeting want to use it for every single vote — and I agree, I think we should — I think that was the main reason we brought these forward.”
Moderator Michael Seele had recommended voice votes unless a voice vote supported using the handsets. Town Counsel Michelle McNulty’s interpretation of state statute agreed with Seele’s recommendation, which was the approach used, specifically on questioned items on Article 2 — which was decided by the devices when a voice vote proved inconclusive.
“The towns that use them on every question had lengthier town meetings,” said Seele, who chaired the committee that studied using the devices. “It’s up to the meeting.”
A special warrant article for $280,000 to purchase streetlights from National Grid was amended to authorize the borrowing of the funds and issue bonds or notes of the town for them. Lynam also indicated the town has applied for two grants, which if received, will pay for the borrowing in two years while the town saves on energy costs by switching to LED lights.
A line item within budget Article 2 later centered on $143,000 sought for street lighting. Lynam explained it was for electricity costs, which is expected to be reduced by the LED lighting in coming years.
There were 25 line items questioned within budget Article 2, all of which were ultimately approved. Some of the questioned lines dealt with $1,000 certification stipend earned by some town employees as the town is obligated to meet as a result of approving state laws permitting the stipends several years ago.
A 4-percent increase for Lynam — the third year of an attempt to bring his salary closer to the minimum compensation for a town administrator — and a 2-percent increase for Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green after Green received a 1.5-percent increase last year — were also approved.
The question was prompted by the fact that the salary for the position was increased prior to hiring Green to a level that will still be the lowest among 15 people in equivalent positions through the region.
A question about Fire Department expenses triggered a question about why a brush fire off Indian Trail last year was left to burn overnight while fire personnel were sent home.
“Do you want me to comment on the expense or why we don’t go in the woods at night?” Fire Chief Timothy Grenno asked, then answered both, noting the expense line funds firefighter salaries, contractual obligations and benefits.
Fires in extremely dry weather burn deep underground along root systems and can take as long as two weeks to extinguish, Grenno added.
“If the ground is burned out and you have a firefighter walking across that ground drawing a hoseline and they fall into a pit, that fire can immediately flare up,” he said. “There’s too many obstacles in the woods, there’s too many obstructions, there’s dangers so when we confine a fire … so it doesn’t spread overnight in the darkness and then you go back first thing in the morning and you start up again.”
A Board of Health request for an additional $22,979 — bringing the inspector’s line from $43,148 to $66,127 — was also questioned. Lynam explained it was due to the board’s assumption of responsibilities for animal control services, placing the inspector at the department head level. Both the fire and health board expenses were approved.
A $6,000 expenditure to Whitman WILL was also questioned, with Lynam explaining it was a division of the $12,000 traditionally budgeted for the Whitman Counseling Center, which also was budgeted $6,000 this year.
“It’s no secret to anybody in this room that we’ve had an explosive growth in opioid addiction,” he said, noting the Whitman-Hanson WILL coalition is providing “serious effort to provide assistance and education to people in handling and combatting addiction to drugs.”
Two residents, who suggested the money go into the general fund, questioned a Police Department revolving fund financed through fines assessed by the department. The revolving fund is intended for training and education of officers.
“That fund offsets what this town spends in the police budget,” Police Chief Scott Benton said, comparing it to the Fire Department’s ambulance receipts account. “As the police chief, I want the money to go to the Police Department. I can appreciate where you’re coming from, but I object to [funneling the money into the general fund].”
Lynam agreed that the funds are used to finance the unique needs of the Police Department.