WHITMAN — Voters approved the Board of Selectmen’s recommended $42,473,116 municipal budget for fiscal 2022 — 2.6 percent higher than the current budget — after lengthy discussion on a handful of line items during the Wednesday, June 2 annual Town Meeting. The Finance Committee had recommended a bottom line of $42,462,547.
There were 116 residents in attendance.
The budget was presented as a consolidated financial plan, according to Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman.
“Welcome everyone back to Town Hall as we all continue to navigate this COVID-19 pandemic. I know we’re all happy to be back open and here tonight,” Heineman said. “[The budget] has largely the same service levels in FY 2022 as are being provided currently.”
He explained that the Madden Report, in which a consultant reviewed the town’s financial outlook in 2019, which had forecast an operational override be required.
“This budget does not require that,” he said. “This budget, proposed in the warrant by the Board of Selectmen [and] recommended for passage through the Finance Committee, avoids this scenario for this year … through some targeted spending reductions that do not decrease service levels, but reduce some appropriations to the levels, historically, that have actually been spent.”
He said it also includes some “very limited use of some one-time revenues” to balance the budget while funding fixed increases of health insurance and the county pension fund as the town is required to do — as well as the town’s 4.8 percent assessment increase to the school district.
Both Selectmen’s and Finance Committee recommendations were presented for voters to question, before non-questioned were approved by voice vote and attention was turned to the questioned items.
Heineman also explained that the budget compresses what is nearly 450 line items to about 75.
“It simplifies the budget review for Town Meeting and … improves transparency to be completely clear about how much each department would be appropriated, both in salaries and expenses,” Heineman said, describing it as a snapshot of how the town intends to spend its money in the coming year, allowing departments more flexibility to handle problems as they arise.
Questions raised on budget line items included salaries for the town administrator and assistant TA, as well as salaries in other departments, non-mandated busing costs for the School District and the debt service article for South Shore Tech. All budget lines were eventually passed.
Marshall Ottina of Lazel Strette asked what percent increase was reflected in the $311,278 the Selectmen and Finance Committee were recommending for the two positions.
Heineman pointed out that the increase in his salary brings it to the level that his contract with the town specifies and that the salary for an assistant town administrator was being offered in a range of $92,000 to $105,000 to make the position competitive in the marketplace to attract a good candidate.
“No one would be happier than I would be if we could get the absolute best candidate for a lesser amount,” he said. “This proposal is being offered in recognition that the market has changed.”
Finance Committee Chairman Richard Anderson said his panel has thoroughly reviewed the salary request and that is necessary to attract the right person.
Area towns offer between $98,000 for assistant town managers or administrators in Abington and Kingston to Hanover, where the assistant town manager makes $120,000. Hanson pays $100,000 to an assistant to the town administrator.
“We have set a maximum, a ceiling of what the town would pay for that person, depending on qualifications,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said. “We want to get the best person we can.”
Lisa Green was making $90,400 when she served as assistant town administrator.
Town Clerk Dawn Varley said the salary issue doesn’t sit well with her because of contractual buy-outs. While lauding former Town Administrator Frank Lynam for sticking to his word and not accepting a buy-out of unused time off, “What you don’t see in this line is a buy-out that happens every year.”
Varley said Selectmen had agreed with Heineman to buy back two weeks of vacation time every year, instead of a buy-out the year he leaves or retires.
Other department heads do not receive that contractual consideration. She also urged amending the line to eliminate the buy-out and limit a new assistant town administrator to a 2-percent increase as other departments received.
The motion to amend was not supported, and the original line was passed. LaMattina said Heineman’s buy-back agreement was in the event that he does not use his vacation time, as state law requires if an employee works through vacation time.
“I was the one who ran the revolving door,” Lynam said. “I was the one who hired people and couldn’t keep them because we weren’t paying adequately for the demands of the job.”
He argued it was disingenuous to argue the town was “paying someone who isn’t here yet,” as Varley had maintained. Instead, he argued, the salary range is in recognition that it is very difficult to hire key people who do significant work and significant value to the town, but are not paid enough.
Line items for treasurer-collector salary and town clerk were increased by 7.1 percent and 11.8 percent respectively, while other department heads were increased by 2 percent in the budget based on that 2-percent increase and other avenues of pay that both offices have received, in the interest of transparency.
Another vigorous debate centered on the Selectmen’s proposed $411,746 for non-mandated busing, vs. the $401,177 recommended by the Finance Committee.
School Committee member Fred Small made a motion to amend the article to favor the Selectmen’s recommended $411,746. The amendment was passed.
“The amount that we’ve requested … is the Selectmen’s proposed amount,” he said of the school budget. “That’s what it costs us for non-mandated busing” of students who live within a mile and a half of schools.
Small explained that the estimated $10,000 reduction recommended by the Finance Committee is “just not feasible” because of the cost to do the job of safely transporting students to school.
Anderson said they voted to level fund the line was largely economic, while they also voted for the full assessment of the school budget as voted by the school committee.
He gave three reasons not to support Small’s amendment:
• during a meeting on the issue in February, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak made a “clear commitment” to evaluate bus ridership and routes to effect cost savings, but no updates had been received;
• each town department has been continuously been asked to submit a budget that level-funds expense lines, but the school department did not make the same effort as most other departments; and
• this is a year in which the school district is negotiating a new contract with the bus company.
“We still have a structural deficit this year, as is evidenced by the fact that we continue to use one-time funding sources to close the gap in our budget,” Anderson said. “The Finance Committee remains dedicated to the safety of our students — as much as the Selectmen, as much as the School Committee.”
Small countered that the district works hard to obtain as accurate accounting of bus ridership as is possible during an annual summer census, so that only the students that are using non-mandated busing will have a seat.
“But if a parent answers that they want a seat for their child, then they’re going to have a seat for their child,” he said. “The district doesn’t make any money doing this. The district doesn’t gain any benefit doing this — this is what it costs us.”
Small continued that Selectmen set policy and have decided to continue non-mandated busing, while the school district merely sends the bill.
Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly said her vote against the FinCom’s recommendation was because she wanted to see more information from the schools.
Voters approved an article to authorize South Shore Tech to incur $10,516,372 in debt for school renovation and expansion. All eight towns in the region had to approve the article, and Whitman was the only one that had not yet done so.
Whitman’s share of the money is 24.5 percent, based on the last three years of enrollment, according to Superintendent/Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey.
Lynam had cautioned authorizing debt before the scope of work is know.
“My problem is this is an open checkbook,” he said. “We don’t know what work’s going to be done over what period of time and I would like to see a more defined plan.”
Selectman Dan Salvucci, Whitman’s representative to the SST School Committee said the state has ruled that the district maintains the school too well to qualify for state funds.
Hickey said the school provided a multi-year planning matrix outlining how the projects will be prioritized and broken down, which was presented to member towns.