WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen after a joint meeting with the Finance Committee on Tuesday, May 5, voted 4-1 to reaffirm the statutory method for school budgeting this year. Later in the meeting, however, Selectman Randy LaMattina argued for a reconsideration that, while not approved, left the door open to hearing out any Hanson compromise.
Selectman Justin Evans, who represents Whitman on the regional agreement amendment panel, dissented from the vote to reaffirm the statutory formula.
“I can’t see this as anything but punishing the schools for a disagreement with another town,” he said. “I’d like the opportunity to continue and present something to this board before we vote it down.”
“To now paint the town of Hanson as the enemy is wrong,” LaMattina said.
The meeting was conducted via Zoom meeting and recorded for playback on the Whitman-Hanson Community Access TV YouTube cannel.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson advocated the end of negotiations for a compromise as a way to move other business forward.
Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina, who has extensively researched the assessment formula issue according to Anderson, said the statutory method was never properly enforced.
“People … never took the time to do the math,” she said. “Over the course of the last six fiscal years, Whitman has already paid $4.1 million that would have been paid by our partner town had the statutory method been enforced.”
She said that she has tried to “nicely inform” to finance committee chairmen in both towns that the real problem is the loss of $3 million in Chapter 70 money for Hanson, which has increased their minimum local contribution to the school district.
“We can’t go back in terms of suing, or trying to recapture, that money apparently, but we certainly can’t go forward and continuing to subsidize Hanson’s bill,” Ottina said. “Whitman people should be paying Whitman’s bills and Hanson people should be paying Hanson’s bills.”
She said she is not convinced that any type of compromise is in the best interests of the Whitman taxpayers.
“We don’t get aid we don’t need, so we don’t have aid we can give away,” agreed Finance Committee member Rosemary Connelly. “The aid is very specific to the need of the town.”
She said paying Hanson’s bills was part of the reason Whitman can’t provide cost of living increases to its town employees.
Evans said Hanson has made it clear that they do not plan to fully fund the school budget.
“They’ve given numbers that they say they can afford, and they don’t plan on exceeding those numbers,” he said. “In trying to find our way out of this situation we can either let Hanson underfund the school system and meet our statutory obligation [by laying] off teachers in that scenario, forcing a 1/12 budget by voting down the budget or letting Hanson vote the budget down, or we can make up the difference and protect the schools and the students from a dispute between the towns.”
He has been seeking one-time relief that includes the four teachers in the elementary schools cut from the budget last year as his conditions to move the towns forward.
“The town of Whitman is being taken for a ride with this entire charade,” Anderson said, arguing that the regional agreement amendment panel does the work it was formed to do — amending the agreement that are in the best interests of the students, faculty and both towns that serve the district. He asked what kind of figures Hanson has provided.
“It took a very long time to even getting a number from the Town Administrator for what they were able to afford this year — or willing to afford, or however you want to say it — and I only got that number this past week,” Evans said.
“That’s part of the charade that I grow increasingly tired of every single day,” Anderson said. “It’s time for them to educate their citizens about how they need to pay their bills. We’re not going to pay Hanson’s bills.”
Evans said, if the statutory method is where the district will end up, there shouldn’t be a need to lay off teachers to get there. Connelly said such a move is already unnecessary.
“We are willing to fund,” she said. “So it’s not us.”
She said that she has watched a video of a September 2017 Hanson Selectmen meeting that proved the board knew about the assessment formula then.
Anderson said information on what Hanson can afford, coming from the town administration gives no indication about the taxpayers’ willingness or ability to pay. Evans agreed that the Mass. Association of Regional Schools assessment last year showed Hanson has the capacity to afford an override, but have not formed an override committee.
“This is a big deal to the Whitman taxpayer,” Anderson said of the $500,000 difference in Hanson’s favor. “We’re going to tell the fire chief that line items from the Fire Department [are] going to be reduced in order for us to fund the fire department in Hanson. That’s what we’re talking about. It’s $500,000 we don’t have.”
Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said he had been supportive of a compromise, but after Evans was rebuffed at a recent meeting by Hanson’s Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, he changed his mind.
“I think we need to say, ‘No, it stops here,’” Kowalski said. “Whitman has always come through.”
Connelly argued that Hanson voters are being misinformed.
“We’ve been the victims of fake news from Hanson, and it’s hurtful,” Kowalski agreed.
During the discussion of Whitman’s Article 2 preparations for Town Meeting, Anderson noted that anticipated local receipts are down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’re forecasting how much we’re taking in in things like motor vehicle excise tax in a very difficult economy, meals tax in a situation where the restaurants are on the edge,” he said. “It’s reflected in the fiscal ’21 revenue summary.”
Assuming the town funds everything sought in the Town Meeting warrant, Whitman would “certainly maximize our levy to the point where we’ve spent $582,000 more” and would have to adjust the ambulance fund — among other accounts — to keep the town out of the red, Town Administrator Frank Lynam said. Free cash would have to be used for other expenditures because other available funds would be used for the larger numbers.
“People should know that this is a very bare-bones budget,” Lynam said.
Connelly asked if the budget reflects new realities such as a town pool that may not open for the summer or a library that remains closed to walk-in patrons. She asked if funds from such relatively dormant facilities could be transferred to public safety and other accounts where there is greater need.
“Could we rethink how we’re using our money?” she asked.
Lynam said the funds are essential to the operation of departments, noting there is little savings to be realized. Some, like the Recreation Department, are funded by revolving accounts.
“We’re certainly in uncharted waters,” Anderson said as the discussion moved to municipal salaries. “We have been talking about reining in salaries for while, and I would hope that the sacrifices the town departments are making is recognized throughout all of the departments.” No cost of living adjustments are being considered in the new budget.
He said the Finance Committee has opened up a “really interesting dialog” with the regional school district.
“I think it’s really time that we talk about what kind of commitments they can make in this particular aspect of the budget,” he said.
The Building Facilities and Capital Improvements Committee has not competed its work, either. Anderson said the Finance Committee is working with that panel in order to provide time for them to formulate a complete recommendation on all the capital articles on its matrix.
Outright purchase rather than lease/purchase as well as contracting for replacement value insurance on town-owned vehicles are also being viewed as a way to save money in the long-run.
Should the town approve a Whitman Middle School feasibility study, Lynam said, it makes more sense to borrow the $850,000 than to used free cash — as the state reimburses a portion of that amount. It is also consistent with the recommendations of the Collins Center Capital Improvement Plan recommendations, according to Selectman Justin Evans.
“The regional school budget is really holding us hostage,” Anderson said.
Lynam agreed that the schools and certain fixed costs are the only areas of the budget where Selectmen and the Finance Committee have no control.
The veteran’s benefits account, for example — already in the red — is expected to increase by $48,000.
“Even though we are generally curtailing expenses, Article 2 and our borrowing costs, all of the things that represent raise and appropriate, are going up $1.3 million this year,” Lynam said. “It’s a big number.”
Selectman Dan Salvucci asked why Whitman Library costs are up 18 percent when the library is closed, prompting Lynam to observe that two area towns have furloughed library staff — except for the library director — until September, signaling an intent to remain closed all summer.
“We haven’t addressed that yet, and it’s probably something that should be discussed,” he said.
Anderson suggested the cost of accreditation renewal for the library could be partly responsible for the increase. Connelly also suggested that electronic books being made available as well as use of library WiFi from the parking lot could have an effect.
“People are continuing to borrow books electronically,” Lynam said. “That has no impact on us.”