HANSON – Based on the Whitman-Hanson Regional School District budget certified on March 15, Hanson officials have “had to re-adjust some numbers” in the budget.
But working with interim Town accountant Eric Kinsherf, Town Administrator Lisa Green said they were able to bring the deficit down from $1.38 million to $616,000.
“We’re really working diligently to bring our budget down to a balanced budget,” she said.
The Select Board, on Tuesday, March 21 voted to close the warrant for the annual Town Meeting, which will be held on Monday, May 1. Placing and/or recommending those articles completed so far.
“We are in a cash crunch this year,” said Chair Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, who said she has spoken to Whitman Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina about the WHRSD budget.
“They are as concerned as we are with the school assessment being in the 7- to 8-percent [range], when we had very clearly expressed that the absolute maximum that we can pay is a 4-percent increase,” she said. “One of the concerns is that, over the last two years, the district has used one-time money – grant money – in the budget, so when we’re saying it’s a level-funded budget, that’s really not accurate. It’s level-funded plus the grant.”
She argued that keeping the budget at that level was really quite a large increase.
“With our very modest growth that we have in the town, this is beyond unsustainable,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We don’t have any sort of magic pill that’s going to change this.”
She is proposing a joint meeting between just the two select boards to talk about what finances look like for the town meetings and to find a way to speak with a united voice.
“Even with what Ms. Green has told us, that’s a large deficit,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We’re all adults and I think we know that means costs need to be cut and there’s only so many ways to do that.”
She said one of the things she has liked seeing this year is the way each town board has been reaching out to their counterparts in Whitman and vice versa “to calibrate.”
“This is the way it needs to be,” she said.
Board member Jim Hickey said, while he wouldn’t suggest leaving the schools out, he supported the two towns talking first and then going to the School Committee.
“There are things we’re putting off doing,” she said. “We’re making modest headway, thanks to creativity and grants and hard work, but we can’t gut our town government, we just can’t.”
She also suggested the town has no time at this point to even entertain an override this year.
“The Whitman [Select] Board is a good board,” Vice Chair Joe Weeks. “They’re good people, so I don’t think this is in any way a controversial thing. People elected us to have conversations, especially difficult ones and find solutions, and not just kick the can down the road.”
The minute this year’s problem is solved, he said, they have to get to work on next year’s problems.
The board had voted during the meeting to strike four WHRSD capital requests from the warrant not recommended by the Capital Improvement Committee because the town does not have the funds to address them. The Capital Committee had about $350,000 to fund projects in the warrant.
“We really struggled to prioritize what we could, given that budget,” said Weeks, who serves on the Capital Committee, of the $350,000 they were allocated. “We recommended to the town $313,000 of the $350,000. The reason why we couldn’t get up over $350,000 because there wasn’t something that could bridge the gap in between those and we have a relatively conservative board that didn’t want to over spend what was given to us.”
He said the total cost of all the requests made for capital projects this year was about $25 million, and the committee was only able to spend $313,000.
“We were given line items with no way to prioritize,” said Board member Ed Heal, who also serves on the Captial Committee. He said no explanations about the requests were provided.
FitzGerald-Kemmett also cited a concern over equity in the district that prompted the striking of an article to regarding capital improvement articles at Indian Head School.
“I wouldn’t want Indian Head doing something that we can’t do for the other schools that we have,” she said. “We’re in a budget deficit.”
In other business, Library Director Karen Stolfer gave an update on events and activities to the board, including the application for a construction grant, which will help with the library’s expansion needs.
There is no cost to apply, she said.
Board members voted to support the grant application.
There are two project categories for the 2022-23 grant, small populations [2,500 or less] and standard. Hanson is applying for the latter.
The library’s plans require 16,000 square feet, placing Hanson in the medium tier for their plan developed in 2018. Focused on need this time out, with nine to 10 grants planned, Stolfer said the process will be more competitive this time around.
The grant covers 50 percent of costs up to $100,000 and the town is required to appropriate up to $150,000. A letter of intent is due April 28, with a full application due by May 2024. Schematic designs are due in 2025-26 with construction due for completion in 2029
Stolfer is working on the required statement of need.
“I’m happy to report that people are coming back to the library,” Stolfer said, adding that they are borrowing items and the use of digital resources, which “skyrocketed” during COVID, is continuing. “We’re getting lots of requests from local organizations for our meeting rooms and, of course, one of our biggest draws is our programming.”
A lot of programs are being slated for school vacation week in April, including the annual Family Fun Day on April 21.
She also spoke of the Library of Things, a collection of nontraditional items, including metal detectors, puzzles, a laser levels and Roku streaming sticks that can be checked out.