WHITMAN — Saying “nothing here is cast in stone,” financial consultant John Madden returned to a meeting of the Whitman Budget Override Evaluation Committee Monday, Dec. 2 to review his draft analysis of the town financial conditions.
“It was what we expected,” said Town Administrator Frank Lynam. “It was what we’ve been talking about.”
The report is posted on the town website whitman-ma.gov.
“Make no mistake, you guys have done a great job,” Madden said. “You’ve gotten to where we are today, when other communities may have decided, ‘You know what? This is too much work. I think we’ll try for an override and see what happens.’”
He lauded what the committee and town government have done to balance the budget and “postpone what appears to be the inevitable.”
Committee Chairman Selectman Randy LaMattina said the panel did have some questions and sought clarification on figures in the report, specifically a 5-percent increase for the schools.
Madden said if department heads have compelling arguments for the Finance Committee, board of Selectmen or other decision-making board to consider for figures outside of his recommendations, that is the decision of that committee or board.
“Something has to give or you prepare to go to the voters with a general override,” he cautioned however, adding the recommendations come from an effort to mitigate the cost and delay the need for such an override.
He said that he recommended 5 percent for the schools, based on what he has seen in other communities.
“I’ve seen lower, I’ve seen higher,” Madden said.
Resident member of the committee Christopher George asked if the figure represented a 5-percent increase in the assessments to the towns or a 5-percent increase in the schools’ overall budget. Madden said it was the figure from the towns’ Article 2 budget.
School Committee member Dawn Byers noted that, as a regional district, more than 50-percent of the WHRSD budget is from state aid and is not giving Whitman a 5-percent increase.
If the recommendation involved a 5-percent increase from Whitman and Hanson individually, as well as from the state, it would paint a different picture, Byers said.
“I think that would be a nice opportunity to fund the schools appropriately, but with 0.45 percent Chapter 70 increase, 5 percent from the towns doesn’t equate to an overall 5-percent budget increase,” she said.
Lynam said the committee hired Madden in an effort to identify where Whitman is and where the town is headed with the regional schools posing a particular challenge because so much of that budget is fixed.
“In fairness, our concern was for you to focus the factors that affect Whitman,” he said. “You have done that.”
Madden agreed that the towns are charged with providing an education to the children of Whitman and of Hanson, as well as some school choice participants, that keep students coming into the district.
“You’ve got to fund an education that keeps people in school and not looking elsewhere,” he said.
George also asked if there was any area in which the town was spending too much money as compared with others. Madden said nothing he has looked at or recommended actually solves individual issues. He said the report identified some areas of concern such as IT, but said it was up to the town as to whether they want to tackle them sooner rather than later.
Selectman Justin Evans, noting the suggestion in Madden’s report that the motor vehicle fine account could be moved into the general fund to defray salary expenses in the operating budget, asked if the town could do that on its own, since the town had petitioned the state to create the fine account in the first place.
Lynam said the town would have to rescind its approval of home rule legislation, but he would investigate the process.
“There’s so many things that would be perceived as negative in that type of revenue process,” he said. “I believe right now the police act in a responsible way to ensure public safety — that’s their job and that’s what they should be doing — they shouldn’t be focusing on hit counts to raise money, and I wouldn’t want to see us going back to that.”
Madden said he suggested the fines go back into the general fund since they no longer cover the cost of vehicle leases.
Lynam said even if the change was not made, the town could look at the revenue coming in against the purchasing needs of the public safety departments and use what remains for general fund purposes through Town Meeting warrant articles.
“We’re not really changing anything,” George said. “It’s an accounting practice in terms of the way things work. … We’re not really talking about any significant changes or reductions for how we spend that money, this is just about best practices from an accounting standpoint.”
Madden said that was basically what he was recommending for budget flexibility and protection from anomalies.
“We have utilized our funding sources to the maximum available,” Lynam said. “That’s where we are today.”
LaMattina noted social media posts to the effect that the town spends too much money and asked Madden for his assessment of Whitman’s spending practices. Madded said that, while free cash has been used to pay debt over the past few years, he considers debt to be part of the budget, and worked hard to do that, but at some point the town will have to consider an override. Other than that, some staffing issues are the only sources of concern Madden said he found, including overtime use.
He was asked if Whitman’s average tax bill is $5,450 in fiscal 2020, up 6 percent from last year and 24 percent in five years, is common or if it seemed high.
“Not necessarily,” Madden said. “I’ve analyzed a community that went up 13 percent in one year.”
He said if the overall budget were to increase 3 percent, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.
“There are a number of things the public doesn’t see that drive a budget,” he said.
Finance Committee member Scott Lambiase said the BOEC has to digest Madden’s report and discuss it with the Finance Committee and Selectmen.
“But we have recommendations on the table, and we have to decide what we want to do with those recommendations — whether we want to adopt all of them, some of them — and then move forward with that,” he said. “Right now, we have a budget to put together and then we have to decide do we want policies to come out of this? Do we want to adopt them? We want to make sure we can stick with them.”
Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green also advocated adopting the Community Preservation Act, which can bring in state funding for recreation, open space conservation, community housing and historic preservation projects.