WHITMAN — The Finance Committee is still working on hard numbers for Town Meeting Warrant Article 2, which funds the town’s budget, but members are working to meet as much of the School Department’s 11.5-percent assessment increase as possible within the levy limit.
Prior to the Tuesday, March 21 meeting, Finance Committee member Shawn M. Kain had presented Town Administrator Frank Lynam with a “brainstorming” list of potential cuts he wanted to discuss, which prompted a heated exchange between members.
Chairman Michael Minchello and Lynam calculated during the session that the town might be able to meet a 7.5-percent increase — 9 percent for Whitman including the student population shift — “as a starting point.”
That represents the town’s retaining non-mandated busing, a $365,000 expense to the town. They further calculated that, minus funds that would be needed to add crossing guards, about $320,000 could be added in support of schools if non-mandated busing for children within a mile and a half of schools was discontinued — bringing the assessment increase to between 10 and 10.5 percent.
Finance Committee member Charles Colby said the assessment calculations were a step in the right direction.
Discontinuing non-mandated busing is a decision Town Meeting voters must make, they noted.
“I’m trying to get to a fair number,” Lynam said, referring to Kain’s brainstorming memo. “You’re suggesting that we make significant cuts to town budgets in order to increase funding to the schools.”
Lynam argued that WHRSD is not cutting a dollar from its budget, but rather is adding $1.4 million to the town’s budget.
“You want to make it a percentage game and I want to make it a dollars game,” Lynam said.
Kain disagreed, arguing that while schools have increased slightly, other departments have increased budgets over the years, and suggested in his talking points memo that town departments be cut by 25 percent — $353,000.
“I didn’t know where the money would end up, so I wanted some contingency just to prepare for the meeting,” Kain said. “I do think if you cut a flat rate from the expense line, if everybody had to cut 10 percent from their expense line, that’s a departmental cut.”
Among his suggestions was reducing utilities costs and gave the example of cutting air-conditioning or heating use at the library.
“It sounds like you want to cut legitimate services,” said IT Director Josh MacNeil, later adding, “What you’re telling me is you’re looking to screw the town to fund the schools.”
“I would like to have discussion about, if the schools are sacrificing, but how are other departments sacrificing?” Kain said, noting he got his figures from the annual Town Report.
After listening to much of the discussion about Kain’s memo, Minchello, a former School Committee member, weighed in on the Finance Committee’s mission.
“What I have a problem with is that this committee is supposed to bring in a balanced budget and a fair budget and every comment you have made tonight is so one-sided for the schools,” Minchello said. “I have a problem with that. When we’re up in front of the town, we’re supposed to be making recommendations — it’s our credibility as a committee that’s at stake here.”
Kain’s recent comments at a School Committee meeting, which he made as a private citizen in support of sharing sacrifices town wide, were also criticized.
“If you don’t want to be on [the Finance Committee], walk out and go be an activist, because maybe you’re better suited for that,” said member Randy LaMattina, calling Kain’s comments a sign of “utter disrespect.” “This is government, where we need to look out for every person, not just one small group, and that’s what you’re doing and it’s obvious.”
Lynam had earlier asked how the schools are sacrificing with an increased budget. School expenses are included in the Town Report data.
Minchello and LaMattina argued at a 10.5-percent increase, the schools would be left with a $150,000 deficit that could be made up by moving curriculum materials out of the operating budget into an article.
“They don’t want to do that,” said Minchello, who later noted the current Finance Committee is now more supportive of the schools than it has been in years.
“We will support the schools to the extent that is fair and equitable across the town,” he said.
Among the sacrifices Kain listed in his memo for discussion was elimination of the assistant town administrator, pointing to a jump in administrator salaries from $86,000 to more than $200,000.
Lynam said those funds have also covered $51,000 paid a former employee. The memo also listed elimination of the assessor clerical position ($35,000), treasurer clerical position ($29,000), Council on Aging clerical position ($32,000 — two people), $30,0000 from library techs, and reduction of Lynam’s salary increase which is under contract.
“There are a few people who were successful in revaluing the job they do and being compensated for it, and frankly I’m one of them,” Lynam said. “I sacrificed over the last 10 years — and I can document where I have not sought increases when other departments got increases, and I did not seek increases in line with the market.”
His increase, at $7,000, still makes him the lowest-paid among his peers, and Selectmen had expected, and indicated to him they would have supported, more. Lynam also pointed out Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green was also hired to help the office operate and prepare for his planned retirement.
He also said town employees, unlike those in the School Department are not allowed buyouts of accrued sick leave when they retire.
“That was a brainstorm contingency, based on where the budget came back,” Kain said. “I needed some sort of perspective.”
A former School Department IT employee, MacNeil said in the past five years the school’s technology department alone has increased the salary line by $100,000.
“These people deserve to be paid according to the industry standard, I get it,” he said. “But is that OK?”
Members of the committee also noted the lack of detail in the school budget with LaMattina pointing to the Police Department budget, which detailed costs down to $8.90 to Supreme Pizza for a prisoner’s meal.
“That’s how detailed we’re getting with every other department budget,” he said. “[The schools] give us general numbers and will not break it down.”
Minchello said the Police Department is under-funded and unable to fill shifts, the Fire Department is under-staffed because schools are not funded properly. A $4 million town-wide Proposition 2 ½ override — $1,200 more per $300,000 household per year — would be required “just to provide decent service.”
“I’m here because this town is in trouble, and that’s what Shawn started off with saying,” said resident Leila Donovan of Old Mansion Lane. “No one wants to get into us-vs-them.”
Lynam stressed Town Meeting is the appropriating body and makes those decisions and that the town has not supported town-wide overrides in the past.