WHITMAN — The Finance Committee has been hearing dismal predictions of layoffs and reduced services as a result of even a 3-percent budget cut from almost all town departments in November and December — with projections of a 6-percent cut being even worse — as it has met with department heads in planning a fiscal 2020 budget.
Only the School District has yet to file a specific impact statement, but that is expected by the time it formally rolls out a budget next month.
The Finance Committee reported on the status of meetings with department heads at the Tuesday, Jan. 8 meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
“We appreciate the opportunity to present this information,” Chairman Richard Anderson said. “This committee … started the budget review cycle three months early with a very specific plan — to evaluate this community’s economic distress in fiscal 2020.”
He then provided a thumbnail outline of each department’s impact forecasts [see box at right].
“We’re looking for sustainability,” Anderson said.
“We have to get this information out that these are the impacts,” Selectman Scott Lambiase agreed.
Initial meetings with the departments have been held, and more are planned, to evaluate the impact of 3- or 6-percent cuts to level-service budgets.
“These percentages were not arbitrary,” Anderson said. “They were based on the estimate of a $1.8 million [budget] shortfall for this fiscal year.”
The Finance Committee has also been updating Selectmen on a regular basis to inform them as well as the public for a “clearer understanding of the need to improve communication with all the stakeholders in this process,” according to Anderson.
“I think we’re getting a comprehensive look at what these funding cuts would mean to the town,” he added, noting there is still two weeks of work ahead of them.
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said the forecast was “sobering, but not unexpected” and asked about suggestions the Finance Committee might have.
Anderson said that, while they continue meeting with department heads, while developing a draft Article 2 budget with which to work in the second round of meetings.
“We need several different budget scenarios,” he said. “We can’t be caught at the last minute, as we have in years past, with no battle plan.”
Town Administrator Frank Lynam said there was a bit of good financial news — meals tax revenues were up to $166,000 from $140,000 and National Grid has finally worked with the town in time to obtain the grant for LED conversion of streetlights, which should be completed this month, which will “have a meaningful effect on our budget,” at a $35,000 savings.
But Lynam also cautioned that a power-share agreement to rebate 22 percent of electrical costs through National Grid, won’t be realized until the third quarter of 2019.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
National Grid’s property tax boost to the town is amortizing at a rate where the benefit will disappear in two years, and the tax burden is already shifting to homeowners.
“This board has to take a solid look at freeing up levy space,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina. He again argued for moving the debt for the new police station and Town Hall/Fire Station renovations to a debt exclusion. Officials agreed that, while funding the work within the levy limit seemed right at the time, things have changed.
“The town needs to look at some type of long-term investment back into the community,” he said. “I think the taxpayers will help us out, but we need to help them out.”
“There’s no question that some expenditures have to be reduced,” he said. “The question is how do we do it in a way that makes sense. … To continue operating the kind of town that people are living in and happy to be in — we’re going to have to spend some money, there’s no way around that.”
Finance Committee Vice Chairman David Codero also reminded Selectmen that voters at the 2018 Town Meeting voted to spend $800,000 of capital stabilization funds to provide pay increases for department heads and capital spending.
“Infusing a budget with money from outside sources is not a solution,” he said. “That one-time money is no longer there. … I emplore the Board of Selectmen not to take another kick-the-can-down-the-road type of strategy this year. It’s not a great solution.”
School Committee member Fred Small said transportation reimbursement to the district is up a bit and the Maquan closing is beginning to be calculated.
If social media commentary is to be believed, as Selectman Brian Bezanson reported, there is no appetite in town for an override of any kind.
“You might get 1 percent who are in favor of any kind of increase. Period,” Bezanson said. “If you expect them to just stand in line, lock-step and go for whatever we can come up with … you’re not going to get the support for it. I believe they are tapped out.”
Lambiase said Bezanson was probably right, but the board still has to put a plan together.
Lynam and Kowalski reminded the board and residents “screaming on social media” that the town’s tax rate and actual tax bills are lower than those of surrounding communities.
The Bridgewater State Community Assessment Survey’s 19 percent — or 1,037 residents (632 online, 405 on paper) — has been completed and will be available for review as a value statement of the town’s residents.