WHITMAN — The unveiling of Whitman’s latest draft version of the fiscal 2020 municipal budget on Tuesday, March 19, led to more than an 90 minutes of often heated debate, in which charges of failure and political grandstanding were exchanged between Selectmen.
The board met in a joint session with the Finance Committee.
The budget document offered two financial scenarios — both of which would require an operational override to prevent layoffs.
The budget’s reduction of $3.3 million features uniform cuts to al departments and cuts $676,779 — a 10-percent cut — rom the school district and $2,623,221 from all other departments, Town Administrator Frank Lynam said.
“These reductions will cause significant impacts on all of town services,” Lynam said, noting the town will be seeking an override. “To implement this would be devastating to the town. This is worse than [Proposition] 2 ½ was, because 2 ½ caused us to redefine our structure as a town and there have been very few additions to employees since then. … What we’re talking about is a cut that would wipe out anything we have done over the last 20 years and would make many of our services part time.”
Without an override, cuts would include $36,176 in the best-case scenario to $65,728 in the worst without an override to the three employees involved in the Selectmen’s budget; $14,123 or $25,660 for the two employees in the accountant’s office; $19,813 or $35,998 to the assessors office; $45,310 or $82,325 from the collector’s office; $40,496 or $73,578 from technology; $20,306 or $36,895 from the clerk’s office; $22,930 or $41,662 from the single maintenance employee; $428,886 or $779,254 from the 26 sworn officers and three other Police Department employees; $482,354 or $876,402 from the Fire Department; $19,397 or $35,243 from inspectional services; $80,560 or $146,372 for the DPW; $21,374 or $38,836 from health; $28,879 or $52,471 from the Council on Aging; and $54,322 or $95,065 from the library. The vocational school assessments remain the same and a best-worst case scenario could not be offered for WHRSD because of financial commitments.
Other reductions being looked at involve street lighting, park maintenance, bylaw committees, veterans’ graves and Whitman Counseling.
Unemployment compensation would increase because of layoffs.
Some lines, such as the law account, are required and cannot be cut.
“Has this board, in the last seven or eight months, done anything to bring us any further to an answer [of] what sustainability would mean in this town, and the answer is no,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said, to applause from police and firefighters’ union members in attendance. “We should be embarrassed. … We’ve heard the phrase ‘kicking the can down the road,’ well, are we going to keep kicking it or are we going to fix it?”
Lynam said he met with the Finance Committee last week to discuss reductions to bring the town’s finances within the levy limit.
“The Finance Committee continued to evaluate the most effective approach to conclude this budget cycle,” said Chairman Richard Anderson, who said they followed Lynam’s recommendation to suspend a second round of meeting with department heads in order to devote the entire March 5 meeting to drafting a budget for Article 2. But, he added, the committee continues to meet in an “often contentious process” with the town departments to review budget requests and provide them with a “real time update of where the board stands” for a recommendation to Town Meeting.
The result, Anderson said, was a “responsible draft for an extremely difficult recommendation.”
The deficit was calculated at 6 percent of the total budget, basing cuts on the percentage each department had been allocated in the previous budget cycle.
“It was generally agreed that this approach was the most fair and equitable distribution of the liability,” Anderson said. “In a narrow majority, the board most recently recommended increasing the line item to fund a larger percentage of the school’s estimate … then to further redistribute the additional liability to all the other departments.”
While Lynam said there are no villains in the process, the elephant in the room is the cost of education and is something with which the town can’t keep pace.
The recent Community Assessment Survey, conducted through the offices of Bridgewater State University showed that 62 percent indicated support for an override, Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski noted. Of those people, 69 percent said some of the money from an override should go to the schools, 56 to the police and fire departments and 40 percent wanted to fund the DPW with it.
Kowalski also acknowledged “some talk” around town questioning the need for Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green’s position.
“I’d like to remind people that over the two years that she has been serving, Lisa has been responsible for $676,000 worth of grants, some of which will decrease our payments in the future on things like energy,” he said. That figure is more than 7 ½ times her $87,800 salary.
LaMattina pointed to a firefighter in the audience and said he risked his life at the Commercial Street fire and is one of those who will likely be laid off.
“What’s the value of that?” he said. “We are getting to be a joke. Imagine being that person whose job is on the line — and I’ve been in that situation — and it’s horrible, not knowing what’s going to happen. By this time, we should be able to provide some answers and we’re not.”
Near the end of the meeting, Selectman Brian Bezanson and LaMattina became involved in a shouting match over whether LaMattina’s comments reflected genuine concern or a political stump speech.
“We could have met every stinking day, all year, and never would have come up with that money,” Bezanson said. “So to say that this board is not doing its due diligence I find it to be outrageous.”
“I’m sorry you think that,” LaMattina said.
“You’ve had your time,” Bezanson continued. “That was a soap box speech.”
“What have you done in the last year?” LaMattina demanded.
“Not once has anybody here tonight mentioned the elephant in the room, which is the taxpayers in this town, the ones that have to foot the bill,” Bezanson said. “Everybody here has been worrying about what they have had, what they do. What about the people that pay the darned bill? Nobody here brings up the fact that some people are losing their houses, foreclosures are up — why don’t they ever get any consideration?”
Connolly tried to interject in support of resident Shawn Kain’s position that doing due diligence on the concerns of the residents, but Bezanson held his hand up to stop her.
“It’s time we started worrying about them,” he said, advocating his previous suggestion for a pre-town meeting session to outline what cuts will mean. “It’s our job to present the facts, the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Kowalski said that has been all the meeting had been discussing.
“We’re going to end this meeting and there’s not an employee or a department head that knows what’s going on,” LaMattina said. “It’s a failure, admit it.”
“No, I won’t admit it,” Bezanson said. “Get off your stump speech, that’s bull.”
“We knew [after last year’s Town Meeting] and we did nothing,” LaMattina said.
“And what did you do?” Bezanson retorted. “Zero.”
“Here’s my budget, Brian,” LaMattina said holding papers up. “Here’s my budget, where’s yours? Here’s a legitimate budget with the taxpayer in mind, and what I have for a budget is to protect services, because that’s what I want to do.”
“You know, these used to have power,” Kowalski said, holding is gavel.
“What I’m saying is we should have done, as a board, a better job — maybe staying on top of these two people [motioning toward Lynam and Green] so that they got more got done so information could have gotten out to the public in a more timely manner,” LaMattina said. “We shouldn’t be in this position March 19 when we knew a year ago what we had in front of us.”
“They’ve been working on it ever since,” Bezanson said.
“What have we done?” LaMattina shouted. “Give me some tangibles — do you have any tangibles?”
LaMattina also questioned the regional agreement’s financial formula, in view of what he termed Whitman’s being short-changed on $450,000 in Chapter 70 funds that go instead to the region.
School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes argued the main problem is the state’s unfunded mandates. School Committee member Fred Small said he could not obtain the information after two hours on the phone with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly said she had obtained that information, but not until earlier Tuesday afternoon.
“The last thing I want to see is one department against another,” Small said.
Both Small and Hayes also pointed to a an $897,000 spike in special education transportation costs and $650,000 in unexpected tuition costs, for part of the school budget increase.
Selectman Dan Salvucci said the town side of the budget is within the $970,000 in new growth and that, if that was their only budget obligation, there would be no layoffs.
“You’ve got to look at controllable numbers,” he said.
Lynam countered that most communities devote 70 percent of their annual economic growth to the schools, which at about $680,000 for Whitman would still put the town side at $500,000 or so on the town budget would also be in excess of the town’s growth.
LaMattina then asked Salvucci, who is the representative to the South Shore Tech School Committee, why that school is thriving while the W-H budget is in such difficulty.
“It’s because you constantly get your assessments,” LaMattina said. “We’re not funding [W-H] properly, yet South Shore Tech gets their full assessment and they are a thriving school. … Why not have an override for the vo-tech?”
Hayes argued that South Shore offers a different program and that charter schools present a bigger concern.
“[SSVT] offers a way different service — it’s a fabulous school. We lose kids to charter schools that don’t even come to W-H because we don’t have all-day kindergarten … it costs us,” he said. “I don’t think anybody’s questioning the professionalism of [any department], it’s how do we fund this runaway train?”
Kowalski also raised the issue of wage freezes. Salvucci said payroll is the largest portion of all department budgets.
Anderson said the Finance Committee recognizes and has prioritized the need for a sustainable financial plan, but also has to address the town’s immediate financial need.
Fire union President Scott Figgins expressed frustration that nothing has been accomplished on the budget front.
“We’re looking at losing half our department and you’re talking about giving us wage freezes,” he said. “We bargained faithfully with this board, we’ve given up things. … That override passes, there’s no guarantee that money comes to the department.”
He said he supports the schools, but the school budget keeps increasing while others have been cut.
“It’s very unfair to put that on the employees of this town,” Figgins said.
“I’m trying to think of as many ways as possible for us to avoid that,” Kowalski replied. “A wage freeze shouldn’t be a magic bullet to fix everything.”
Lynam said his two conversations with unions, and his request that the schools have to do the same, have been met with some support and some skepticism, over school employees’ continuing to receive step and lane increases.
Hayes said the school employees’ unions are still in discussions on the wage freeze issue.
“Hanson has its own assessment issues,” said Lynam, who said he was told by Hanson Town Administrator Michael McCue and town Accountant Todd Hassett that the most Hanson can increase is 6.5 percent.
A Whitman override must provide enough to meet the current budget as well as capital needs, Lynam warned.
Selectmen began the meeting with a 4-0 vote — Selectman Scott Lambiase was absent — to approve the sale of the $5,235,000 general obligation refunding bonds of the town for the police station debt to Fidelity Capital Markets for $5,836,956.07 and accrued interest, if any. The bond, payable on June 1 2020 through 2030, saves the town $564,631.09 or about $50,000 in saving per year for the next 11 years.