WHITMAN — Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman presented a balanced fiscal 2023 budget of $38,938,294 — including $261,892 in excess levy — during a joint meeting with the Finance Committee Tuesday, Feb. 1. It would reflect a 2.8 percent tax increase in the average single family home.
Selectman Brian Bezanson was absent.
“Contrary to the last several budgets was a necessary one-time revenue source to balance the budget, this does not envision that,” Heineman said. “Depending on what the school assessment comes in at, that may be a factor, [but] it should be a relatively small factor, based on past increases … but under this proposed budget, there is excess levy and a clear policy question for the Board of Selectmen is do we as a town, as we did last year, want to capture that excess levy and have a higher tax rate and spend it in some way … or is there some part of the full excess levy that we as a town would not want to capture and provide in tax relief.”
There is also $1.5 million in currently allocated American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds, funneled through the county, that may be spent through December 2024. Heineman advocated reserving most of the funds for the sewer force main project — as the one-time money should be used on a one-time expense — or to consider applying to some operating budget needs. The latter is not sustainable after 2024, he reminded the boards.
“For the past couple of years of, I think, pretty good fiscal management from the town, we’ve gone from a necessary override to now producing a budget where we’re not using any one-time money, and I think that’s a huge positive in that things are going in the right direction for this town,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said. He argued that one-time money should never be used to balance a budget.
“It’s a pretty good spot to modify from if we see fit,” he said.
“We’re doing what we’re doing to maintain a workable budget for the town,” agreed Selectman Dan Salvucci.
Heineman said some of the key budget goals and objectives are the implementation of the Madden Report, the draft Strategic Plan and new financial management policies as well as clearly defining the budget’s impact on property taxpayers and the creation of predicable and moderate increases.
Department heads requested $1,077,818 in expense increases — mainly due to increases of $194,000 for Plymouth County Retirement, $144,000 to fully fund unfilled police shifts and $102,000 for storm water management. Another increase of $402,623 is expected in the form of the WHRSD assessment, which is not final yet.
“We have this increase,” Heineman said. “It is not affordable within our property tax levy.”
To close the budget gap, Heinemaan included $239,274 in reductions were made to departmental requests, while still reaching goals.
The budget proposal also includes the allowed 2.5 percent increase under Proposition 2 1/2, as well as a conservative new growth estimate of $400,000 and debt exclusions of $1,042,920. The spending package also includes Gov. Charlie Baker’s local aid figures.
“It does, almost fully, meet the Madden report’s recommendations regarding revenue,” Heineman said. He said the report set a goal of injecting no more than 85 percent in departmental receipts than what had been received in the previous fiscal year, an approach with which Heineman said he agrees.
“When we’re talking about departmental receipts, the big drivers of that are motor vehicle excise, building permits — any other fees the town collects that aren’t taxes,” he said. “This gets there … many of those projected revenue figures were dangerously high — up to 97 percent, 99 percent in some cases — understandable in the budget crunch that we were in, but not wise in terms of long-term budgeting and not wise in that it makes it very difficult to raise free cash because it’s not conservative budgeting.”
Without the generation of free cash, Heineman said, it can be very difficult to maintain any long-range capital plan.
“That’s the key Madden Report recommendation that would be almost entirely achieved here in this proposed balanced budget,” he said.
The two acknowledged exceptions were that if a revenue source was almost certain to come in higher than the 85 percent, it would be acceptable to have a higher amount.
The budget fills 20 percent of the unfilled police shifts, including a full-time records clerk ($57,000), and would provide an IT position ($55,000) and a full-time Building Commissioner ($57,000) as well as a full-time facilities manager ($21,000). The town’s lack of an additional IT person, and a full-time building commissioner, were identified as weaknesses by the Madden Report.
“I think it’s a great budget rollout, and a great first step,” said Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson. “I think we’re all in agreement that [the impact to residents] is something the strategic plan outlined, and one of our budget objectives is to get that line a little straighter.”
Heineman said the town is nearing predictability and the moderation point already.
Anderson asked how building projects, such as a school project and/or DPW building would affect that. He also urged that the Capital Committee be included in budget discussions.
Heineman said the level of interest rates would be a key factor in determining that.
“This is a presentation and then there’s a schedule of events that will happen over the next series of months that involves our two bodies to cooperate and know what each body is doing,” said Selectman Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski.
Department heads submitted their budget requests by Dec. 7, 2021, with Selectmen considering the budget ahead of their vote on the town-side appropriation between now and early March for inclusion on the warrant for the annual Town Meeting on May 2. The Finance Committee will work on its review of the proposed budget from now until April 5.
Kowalski suggested adding another joint meeting with on the Finance Committee on April 12 “to see how close we are.” He noted it may be difficult to duplicate last year when the two boards were only $10,000 apart on their budget reviews.
“We disagreed on one item in that whole budget, which is pretty good,” Kowalski said.
Anderson said the schedule works fine but the April 12 joint meeting date would hinge on whether any of their other meetings are delayed.
“We had it tentatively scheduled for [April] 19, but the 12th is perfectly fine,” Anderson said. Kowalski said he suggested April 12 because he could not be there on the 19th.
“I think that’s a great schedule,” Anderson said.