WHITMAN – The town is looking at a 1,017,394 deficit even as officials have been crafting tighter budgets.
The Select Board heard a budget update from member Shawn Kain and Town Administrator Mary Beth Carter at its Tuesday, Feb. 6 meeting.
The process was begun as a forecast, based on the fiscal 2024 budget and projections of what revenue and expenditures might be for the next budget cycle. The result was a “pretty tight” forecast, Kain said, moving Carter to issue a budget message to department heads in early December that was in line with that forecast to stay within the Proposition 2 ½ increase with no increase in expenses. The total revenue increase over last year is only 1.2 percent for funding all departments, according to Kain.
“The likelihood of an override – certainly a discussion with the schools about an override – is real,” he said.
“We have to balance the budget, that’s the bottom line,” Carter said. “So the tough work is ahead of us.”
Since December, Carter has met with each department head separately to listen to concerns about the department needs. The Finance Committee has gone through a similar process, and more information on revenues is now available.
On Dec. 5, the deficit stood at $273,813, but now comes in at $1,017,394 in a fiscal 25 budget totaling $43,312,919 – with revenues of $42,295,525 in department requests.
“The numbers we were looking at this year are pretty lean,” he said. “At this point we are now ready to begin to formulate the formal budget.”
They walked the board through that information Tuesday night.
The Fire Department, seeking a 15.83 percent increase ($615,529) for salaries and a 12.42 percent increase ($52,945) in expenses, includes adding a firefighter to fill a vacancy created by promotion and contract year for the chief and deputy chief as well as equipment repairs, service contract increases and the ongoing expense of transporting patients due to the Brockton Hospital fire. The Police Department’s salary line increase is 8.05 percent ($274,204) as the chief and deputy chief contracts are up for negotiation, shifts have been unified and police reform makes hiring more complex, but expenses have been held to a .92 percent increase ($3,200).
At the DPW, salaries are up 4.56 percent ($33,865) due to contracts and expenses are increased by 10.64 percent ($190,394) primarily due the increase in solid waste expenses, even as they offset by the trash rate. Capital needs included in transitioning to the part-time use of the armory as the new DPW building is under constructed are also calculated in the expense increase.
Library salary line increases total to 3.81 percent ($14,791) as director and assistant director contracts, other salary increases are contractual. Expenses are up by 29.14 percent ($28,773) due to materials, utilities and maintenance costs.
“If their budget increases, then the amount or money that they spend on books, specifically, has to increase in order to qualify for a significant amount of state funding,” Kain said.
Technology expenses are up 17.03 percent ($46,023) while the salary costs have been kept to a 2.5 percent ($5,777) largely due to software costs.
While the School Department budget wouldn’t be unveiled until the next evening, a level-serviced budget with an increase of 11.12 percent ($1,972,658) is anticipated.
“They knew that this particular year was going to be a drop off, mostly because of the sunset of the federal ESSER funds,” Kain said. “The level-service numbers are expected to increase because of the numbers that came back from the state.”
Carter has included a 5 percent (an increase of $886,975) school budget increase as a placeholder in the budget thus far.
“Anything above that, of course, is going to be a much higher impact to the budget,” she said.
South Shore Tech’s assessment is up by 11.79 percent ($189,177) as a placeholder, as Whitman is sending 14 more students to the school this year.
“When Mary Beth sent her budget message, most of the department heads gave really what they think their department deserves, and they’re advocating for their budget, which they should be able to do so that we and the public understand what their needs and concerns are,” Kain said. “But what they didn’t provide us is what would their department look like if it actually was a 2.5 percent and zero percent expenses.”
He said that is the information they expect to be learning in the coming weeks.
Board Vice Chair Dan Salvucci said that, with three building projects in the works, he does not think an override to balance the budget would pass.
“I think that’s an important discussion for us to have with the School Department,” Kain said. “Obviously, people in the community care about education, they’ve made that clear, it’s a priority.”
He noted the district was presenting a thorough presentation on it Wednesday, Feb. 7 on what it will be able to fund as well as what they won’t be able to fund.
Chair Dr. Carl Kowalski also saw the need for the schools to ask for an override this year.
“I don’t want to be pessimistic about an operational override because we need it to take care of the kids,” he said. “As long as we know that they’re spending their money responsibly, we need it.”
Salvucci said it depends on what the School Committee decides for a budget.
“They need to show that they’re willing to look at both towns and what their budget [outlook is],” he said.
Kowalski said a lot of hard work has gone into avoiding an override to this point.
“Some of us have been saying for years that, in order for us to serve our students in a way that is appropriate,” he said. “The town needs to say – not only in a survey can we say that we value the students and we value the schools, but they also have to say they are willing to pay for it.”
Board member Justin Evans said town departments are not without blame, either.
“A lot of those asks are well above two-and-a-half percent,” he said. “The money has to come from somewhere.”
Police Chief Timothy Hanlon said his department has been underfunded for years.