WHITMAN — Selectmen on Tuesday, April 9 approved the presentation of a debt exclusion question at the Monday, May 6 Town Meeting and on the annual Town Election ballot on Saturday, May 18 — and to wait until the fall to seek an operational override.
The debt exclusion removes the cost of the new police station and renovations made to Town Hall and the fire station from within the levy limit. Selectmen faced an April 13 deadline to approve a ballot question. The planned pre-Town Meeting informational session has been moved to 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, April 17.
In an often-contentious joint session with the Finance Committee — attended by a large crowd of department heads, town employees, School committee members, educators and school supporters — the question of whether to seek both financial approaches at the same time or the order in which they should be approached separately.
“We’ve gone through several iterations of budget estimates,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam said. “We’ve had differing opinions on how to proceed, based on at least in part, whether we believe we will get the support we need.” He reminded Selectmen that a long-term capital plan and budget model is in the works, with completion expected at the end of the month. That work would provide an idea what kind of override would be sought in the fall.
Lynam suggested a debt exclusion would be the most effective method to start with the aim being to free up some capital money and to build a long-term plan based on increased revenue from an override.
Free cash and capital stabilization would be used to pay for previous budget commitments, which would leave a balance of $460,000 in free cash and stabilization.
That would fund essential warrant articles through Article 29, include the debt exclusion to fund the bond and adjourn the Town Meeting until June 3, after the Town Election decides on the debt exclusion question, either funding the remaining articles if it passes or making cuts if it does not.
The budget under current consideration by the Finance Committee would include $13,800,992, a 4-percent increase to the W-H school assessment — and a request that Lynam recalculate the remaining lines on Article 2. Lynam countered that his proposal gives the schools a 6.5 percent assessment increase.
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson and Vice Chairman David Codero expressed reservations with the approach taken.
“The day after the Selectmen’s meeting of last week, I sent an email to the members of the board to relay the unanimous concern we have for the newest direction you appear to be taking with respect to a recommendation to Town Meeting,” Anderson said about the new Article 2 based on a meeting called by department heads and to which Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski and Vice Chairman Dan Salvucci were invited. “The biggest concern we have at this point is eliminating the Proposition 2 ½ override as part of the recommendation.”
Anderson said the Finance Committee views an override as a critical component of this year’s budget discussion. Codero was more blunt, while he commended department heads for their budget cuts made to avoid layoffs.
“It’s not a sustainable approach, that’s the headline,” Codero said of the new Article 2 recommendation. “It’s my understanding that the department heads’ Article 2 is reliant on both passing the override and the debt exclusion. It’s a dangerous way to play with the sustainability of our future.”
He also characterized the department heads’ meetings with Kowalski and Salvucci as being done “in the shadows of [the] Open Meeting” law, and that the first such meeting excluded the schools. Lynam vigorously countered that department heads are not governed by that provision.
“The fact that they held a meeting and I wasn’t aware of it and wasn’t invited to attend, does not shake me as being something inappropriate or untoward,” Lynam said. “If they choose to meet that way, then they meet that way. They are not obligated to post meetings, they are not obligated to invite the public, they have an opportunity to sit down and plan together.”
Whether or not the schools were invited was up to the organizers of the meeting and Lynam made sure school representatives were invited to the second department head meeting.
“We had town employees that were fearful of losing their jobs,” said Salvucci, who attended both department head meetings. “They took … your Article 2 and made cuts where they could to save people’s jobs.”
He said they agreed to make additional cuts to bring the school increase up to the 6.5-percent level Hanson is offering.
School Committee member Fred Small vigorously argued that the schools are part of the town, too.
“We’ve got high school students going to school in the black of the dark of morning because we’re able to save $300,000 on busing,” he said. “We have done so many things over the years — cutting, cutting, cutting — the only thing left to cut, for us, is bodies.”
Small also said he understood the 4-percent increase was only intended as a discussion point.
“I certainly never intended the number to be used by department heads to formulate a separate Article 2,” Anderson said. “We’re working on two separate budgets. … This is not the recommendation to Town Meeting. This is a working document for the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectman.”
He said the Selectman and Finance Committee are basically in agreement over what needs to be done, it is just a question of when.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak echoed Small’s commending of town departments, but said the 6.5 percent assessment would mean the loss of three non-union employees, middle school foreign language, six paraprofessionals, three duty aides, the part-time elementary music teacher, a guidance staff member and 19 teachers — with 4 percent meaning an elementary math curriculum and 23 teachers in addition to the other cuts. Special education costs have run over by $630,000 this year. There are 82 staff members paid through federal grants.
Rosemary Connolly noted the Finance Committee makes decisions based on demographics, rather than a whole town.
“They did it in a bubble,” she said. “It will not be in the best interests of the town … and I hope to not see things like this in the future.”
Kowalski said that, at some point the residents of town will have to agree to spend more money, but that the department head meetings could sustain the town for awhile as they build the budget sustainability by increments.
“There’s a fear that a Proposition 2 ½ override will not pass,” he said.
Selectmen, for a time Tuesday night, seemed close to opting to seek both and override and a debt exclusion at the same time, or to look toward an override first.
“I, for one, am not willing to wait to fix it in the fall,” Anderson said.
Selectman Randy LaMattina said the debt exclusion option works because departments would use it to fill their budgets and he has “seen a budget that works with a debt exclusion.” He has also advocated for the debt exclusion for years.
“The problem with an override is you can’t just ask for a blank number and that’s what I think we’d be doing with an override,” he said. “I have faith that we can pass an override. It needs to be completely detailed where the money’s going.”
LaMattina also said he had concerns after hearing about the first department head meeting, but after attending the second one, he could “only applaud the department heads.”
“I could understand where they are coming from,” he said. “When your back’s against the wall you want to fight your way out of it.”
Whitman Middle School
In other business, Selectmen approved beginning the statement of interest process to the MSBA for a new or renovated grade five to eight Whitman Middle School. The School Committee has already approved the SOI.
Szymaniak said ongoing issues represent challenges for the future health and safety of students and teachers as well as ongoing repair costs.
“This could be a short-term process — probably not — but it could also be a five- or six-year process before they accept us,” Szymaniak said. “It depends on the severity of what they deem is important to our middle school.”
South Shore Tech has been in the queue for five years on a renovation project for which they are seeking MSBA funding.
Facilities Director Ernest Sandland offered a lengthy explanation of the selection process, including the forms that must be submitted to the state. Need outlines, budget process, history of the school and past upgrades, safety concerns such as mold and vermin (termites, bees and mice) problems, and the timeline proposed must all be submitted by April 12. The MSBA Board of Directors will comprise a list of approved projects in December. If Whitman is approved, selecting and creating a schematic design and budget could take about two years more.
“We’re spending so much on repairs over there, that it’s a budget-killer,” Sandland said.