WHITMAN – The Select Board on Tuesday, Nov. 29, heard a sobering viewpoint about work being done on the fiscal 2024 budget by the working group of interim Town Administrator Frank Lynam, Treasurer/Collector Ken Lytle and Select Board member Shawn Kain.
“It’s not going to be the easiest conversation, but it’s certainly necessary,” Kain said. “I feel like there’s kind of three options. … We could hold firm to our financial policy and make up that gap through efficiencies and budget cuts. A second option is we could potentially use some one-time funds to bridge that gap, which is against our financial policy … or we could potentially look at an override.”
Lynam noted that the town has been “dancing around this thing for five years.”
“Talking about overrides in November, when no money has been finalized [and] the school budget hasn’t been set, is far too preliminary,” said Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina.
The budget working group was started a few months ago to determine the town’s fiscal outlook before entering budget season.
“A financial forecast is part of the strategic plan and we want to start to formalize that process,” Kain said, noting the school district has been doing similar work. “It’s been helpful for us to work together.”
Looking at the current tax levy, plus 2.5 percent, is a little over $700,000, Kain reported, with new growth totaling just about $380,000.
“We’re talking about new revenue of about a little over $1 million,” he said.
Other revenue sources such as meals and excise taxes, ambulance receipts and the lottery funds available from the state are governed by a policy of being conservative in making projections – with which Kain agrees.
“We’re looking to be relatively conservative, especially given the economic times, about how much we can realistically depend on or expect from those things in FY ‘24,” he said.
Running a simulation of Article 2, including basic assumptions of costs and revenue, Kain said, the schools’ preliminary projections are a little over 6 percent – which in itself is a little over $1 million.
The budget group also ran a simulation at 5 percent, which the Madden Group consultants said should keep services level-funded without an override, and that comes out to about $850,000.
Lynam said that, in a regional school system, town officials don’t have that control, specifically hot-button issues like the starting times, which could have a significant financial impact should they be changed.
“All things being equal, 5 percent would be a balanced budget, but there’s one particular line that’s killing us – Plymouth County retirement,” Kain said. “We thought it would be 8 percent, and were hoping for 4 percent.”
What it will likely be, according to numbers received in the last couple of weeks, is 17 percent – or $457,000.
“That’s not good news,” he said.
Not calculated at this point is marijuana revenue, which could begin coming in near the end of FY ’24.
“This is the time to really start thinking about what do we want our future to look like,” Lynam said.
LaMattina bristled at talk of overrides so early in the budget process.
“When you start talking about overrides to people and you get that panic based off running speculation,” he said. “I stood in a School Committee meeting and told the superintendent last year what he was doing was wreckless.”
He reminded the board that the schools put one-time funds into recurring cost programs, which the Select Board has pledged not to do under the Madden group’s recommendations.
“I will not see a single member of this town get laid off because of poor decision-making,” LaMattina said. “If they’re going to do an override, then it should absolutely be on them to do.”
Lynam and Salvucci agrees with LaMattina, but Kain respectfully disagreed, noting that the schools have made a lot of their preliminary budget work public this year, and the town has been mirroring that. Before hearing what department heads need, which Kain said would likely include some big asks, there are things that can be calculated now and come up with a forecast under the strategic plan. That forecast can spur earlier budget conversations in the late fall that were previously taking place just before Town Meeting in the spring.
“I’m not saying we should have an override,” Kain said. “I’m saying is what we’re seeing right now … is our FY ’24 budget [with] our initial projections, is not balanced … and it’s fairly significant.”
LaMattina stressed that the town was poised to take in slightly over $1 million while the schools have already projected a $1.4 million – not including the retirement increase.
“And they’re talking about adding,” he said. “They’re not wondering, ‘how are we going to pay for this?’ It was wreckless last year and I knew it was going to happen.”
Resident John Galvin, who attended the School Budget subcommittee meeting earlier on Nov. 29, said another preliminary forecast, not much different than projections the district was making back in June.
“The good thing discussed that the superintendent plans for sometime in December is to … have a preliminary look at the budget,” Galvin said. “It’s basically going to be expenditures.” The schools revenue forecast is going to be difficult because incoming governors receive extra time to work up a state budget.
Schools were told that day that Gov. Healey’s budget would be released March 1 including Chapter 70 funds. Fiscal 2022 property evaluations instead of fiscal 2020 and fiscal ‘20 income values will be used to calculate the town’s hold harmless formula. He said the new formula could mean a “significant increase” in the required contribution from the town.
“I think the schools are trying to make an effort, to come forward, so hopefully we do have an idea sooner rather than later,” he said, repeating that the later governor’s budget release, Chapter 70 funds won’t be available.
“I’m looking at department heads in the back of the room right now, and the School Department thinks it’s OK to take every single dollar,” La Mattina said. “We have residents asking for sidewalks … we have residents asking for a littany of things.”
Lynam told the board earlier that he and the board had received two emails from a resident of an over-55 community on Auburn Street concerning
“Apparently the folks have attempted to involve our various elected representatives at the state and federal level to participate in a discussion with a small group of people from that development who are seeking to have sidewalks installed on Auburn Street,” he said. “My original understanding was, they wanted it from the over-55 community to the Brockton line. As we all know, the town is working on a number of plans to develop sidewalks and better roads.”
Lynam said there are several areas in town that have lacked sidewalks for a long time, including Pleasant Street/Route 58 where there has also been a new residential development with absolutely no sidewalks.
The projected cost for sidewalks requested along Auburn Street is about $1.3 million, according to DPW Highway Supervisor Bruce Martin’s calculations. Federal funds are being looked at, Lynam reported.
“But we are not aware of any federal funds that are going to help us get there,” he said. “Nonetheless, they have requested an opportunity to meet with the board publicly to address their concerns for the sidewalks and to invite other elected representatives.”
He suggested looking at scheduling a session sometime in early January.
LaMattina, who said he also reached out to Martin about the concern, said he saw no issue with such a meeting.
“I was somewhat puzzled by a statement in that email that the state was going to fund those sidewalks,” he said. “In no uncertain terms, Bruce – [who] has checked with state officials – they will not pay for those sidewalks. … I would hate to see a mix-up and people starting to think the state was going to pay for this, and they’re not.”
Select Board Vice Chair Dan Salvucci added that, while Auburn Street residents might not like to hear it, funds are already committed to projects out to 2026 and there are more important projects concerning road safety that need to be taken care of first.
“I agree, but nonetheless, we will listen,” LaMattina said.