WHITMAN – Questions have been raised about a Town Meeting vote on the amount of tax money vs. free cash used to balance the fiscal 2024 budget.
Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter reported, in response to a taxpayer’s question that a Town Meeting article to use free cash to reduce the funds raided taxation needed to balance the fiscal 2024 budget.
Dawn Byers, a School Committee member, addressing the Select Board as a private citizen asked in the public forum on Tuesday, May 23 for the clarification, aware that it would not be up for discussion at the meeting, but in hopes it could be explained at a future meeting.
“I have some follow-up questions regarding Article 42 from the May 1 Town Meeting,” Byers said. “I do hope, as you proceed with setting the tax levy over the next several months, you will perhaps be able to address this in a future public meeting.”
Article 42 asked Town Meeting to vote to appropriate a sum of money from available free cash to reduce the amount of money to be raised by taxation for fiscal 2024.
Byers asked that the board explain what is being done with Article 42, which was approved by the Town Meeting, and why the Select Board proposed the article. She noted that the Finance Committee had not voted on it because there was no dollar figure at that time it came before them, but an amendment on Town Meeting floor inserted the amount of $455,323.
“There was a lower amount and when the schools came in, we had a compromise,” Carter said. “We juggled some things around from capital and so forth, and that was the amount we needed from the remaining free cash to just close the budget.”
Carter said it had been discussed all through the budget process that the town would be using funds from free cash to close the budget.
“After that was done, there was $53,000 some-odd remaining in free cash,” she said. “That was it.”
Byers said it sounds like the town is not fully taxing to the levy, but instead chose to use free cash or is perhaps not recognizing some new growth.
The board will be returning to the issue at coming meetings, Chair Dr. Carl Kowalski indicated.
“We do often hear the term Proposition 2 ½ override, but this feels like the opposite – is this an underride and is it the board’s intention to report it to the Department of Revenue as such when the FY ’24 tax levy is set?” she said. “[It] is a significant amount of tax revenue.”
An accountant in her professional life, Byers asked what the purpose of the one-time free cash funds was, what was the benefit to the town and and who benefits by reducing the amount of money to be raised by taxation.
“I did attend Town Meeting,” Byers said, noting that it had lasted nearly three and a half hours and the article was the second to last to be voted on that night. “We were all there until 11 p.m.” she said.
“While I do agree it was approved by the voters just prior to 11 p.m., I think it’s an extremely important financial decision made by the town that deserves to be further explained,” she said.
In other business, with the Whitman Police Department down a number of officers with a couple more planning retirements in the coming months, Chief Timothy Hanlon requested that the Select Board start the process of calling for a civil service list.
The board approved the request unanimously.
“The process is going to be a little bit more lengthy than it was in the past, when we had the opportunity to reserve officers and see how they fit in on more or less a part-time basis and go through the part-time academy,” Hanlon said.
With the new police reform law, there is no more part-time police academy, however, and the department has exhausted its reserve list as two of them began the police academy May 22, but until they graduate, Hanlon said the department is going to have to fill the remaining vacancies by starting a new civil service list.
Vice Chair Dan Salvucci asked if it would affect promotions within the ranks, and Hanlon said it depends on what ranks retire, as a majority are officers and one is of rank.
The board also approved an amendment to the host community agreement with Soul Flower Inc., permitting the firm to split the company into multiple corporations – retailer Chill & Bliss LLC, product manufacturer Fusion Drop LLC, cultivator Crafted Cannibis LLC and existing licensing transporter Soul Flower Express LLC – for business purposes, according to Carter. All are Massachusetts LLCs and have been approved by town counsel.
“The HCA restricts their ability to so, so they need this amendment,” she said. “It should not change their operations as approved by the [Select Board] under the host community agreement.”