Free cash leaned on heavily, additional firefighter request tabled
WHITMAN — There is good news — and a sobering forecast for future finances — on the fiscal 2016 budget front.
“We have a balanced budget,” Finance Chairman William Capocci reported to the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, April 14. “This is one of the nicest budgets that I think we’ve produced over the years. … Almost everybody’s going to walk away happy.”
While the budget is balanced, the Finance Committee was able to accomplish that by almost completely depleting free cash and tabling Fire Chief Timothy Grenno’s request for eight additional firefighters for at least a year. Several other warrant articles were also withdrawn.
“Free cash is gone,” Capocci said, as are funds in the motor vehicle fine and ambulance accounts and technology stabilization. More than $281,000 is being taken out of capital stabilization.
“We’re getting through the year and we’re surviving,” Capocci said, asking for selectmen’s support on the budget at Town Meeting, including on the firefighter issue he described as “the killer on the budget” even as he stressed that he has no argument about the need.
“If the eight firemen go through, we’re talking override,” Capocci said. That is a move Grenno said he did not want to force.
Grenno and Town Administrator Frank Lynam had independently reached the same conclusion to table the additional firefighters after a recent numbers-crunching session. There was, however, some friction aired between the chief and Capocci on the issue.
Communication between Grenno and Capocci was the main issue in their disagreement.
“The problem that I have is on Jan. 20 I presented my budget,” Grenno said. “Last Tuesday, Frank and I sat in his office for three hours an crunched the numbers on the eight hires … knowing the financial picture the town was going through … I came to the mutual agreement with Frank that we would table it.”
The next morning at 7:15 a.m., Lynam called him to report he did not have the chance to discuss it with the Finance Committee because it voted a 2.5-percent increase in all the services, Grenno said of his budget’s 4-percent increase.
“There was no discussion with me,” he said. “My concern is [that] discussion of the Fire Department budget is going on without me being present.”
Lynam clarified that the 2.5 percent Grenno mentioned, plus 2 percent was approved by FinCom for a 4.5-percent increase.
“At no point in time in any of our nine meetings that you have requested the minutes for, did we discuss the merits of five firemen,” Capocci said. “This was simply a question of we have $5 to spend and it’s going to cost $6 to hire eight people — and we don’t have that dollar.”
Grenno had ultimately sought Finance Committee minutes through a Freedom of Information request to find out what, if any, discussions on the firefighter issue were conducted in his absence.
“All he’s got to do is call me,” Capocci said of the FOI request emailed to him by Grenno the morning after a late FinCom meeting in which the Fire Department Budget was voted. “To do it this way, I thought, was a little extreme.”
He said no budgets were voted on before March 31.
Chairman Carl Kowalski said his first reaction to Grenno’s proposal for additional firefighters — to deal with increasing call volume and resulting overtime costs — was concern for the school budget.
“It’s sad that the schools are in that shape,” Kowalski said of W-H’s position at 10th from the bottom in per-pupil spending statewide. “But we cannot afford to give them more money.”
Grenno made his points effectively enough to change his mind, Kowalski said. Now, however, he said he finds sense in Capocci’s argument and Grenno’s willingness to table the request.
Capocci started his presentation by outlining the town’s ability to weather the recession, without layoffs, since its onset in 2007 before detailing the current state of the town’s finances. He concluded the presentation by cautioning about five major challenges to future town budgets.
The town had been hit with a $2 million cut in revenue between local receipts and state aid to cities and towns on a $20 million budget in 2007, according to Capocci, while services were increased. Fiscal planning in the intervening years permitted infrastructure investment, including the new police station paid for inside the levy limit mainly through free cash.
Cuts made two years ago, however, required by a failed override for the schools had an effect on free cash since as town budgets have increased, due largely to higher fixed costs and a 10-percent cut in trash fees, he said. Another $322,482 transferred from free cash at a special Town Meeting in January – before the weather turned. This year’s snow and ice deficit is $354.832.
“Before we looked at any budgets for this year, we were in the hole $455,000,” Capocci said. Basic revenue is $812,000 over last year. Initial budget requests came in at $1,325,743 higher than last year.
Capocci also warned of five key concerns looming over future budget years: the eight additional firefighters; minimal free cash; rising energy costs; other post-employment benefits (OPEB), such as retiree health insurance; and Whitman-Hanson Regional School District, the low per-pupil spending for which he termed “an embarrassment.”
“We are going to reach a solution in the near future,” he said. “So be prepared.”