Budget meeting reveals dire situation, uncertainty in how to proceed
After four hours of discussion on Saturday, the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and School Department agreed: with a more than $2 million gap in next year's overall town budget, a reduction in both town and school services is on the horizon.
What the town is going to do to balance the budget, however, remains unclear.
The Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee agreed to a joint meeting to discuss the fiscal year 2013 budget after all Selectmen except Ellen Begley failed to appear at a School Committee meeting to address the same topic on March 8.
Emotion and frustration was high on Saturday as town financial analyst Derek Sullivan presented the town's budget as it currently stands.
Among other things in the town’s current working budget, funding for the summer lifeguard program has been cut and funds for a new Personnel Services Director have been slashed.
At least four full-time town employees will be laid off if the budget is approved as is. A 3.75% reduction of employees’ salaries, which would need to be approved by unions, is also proposed, Sullivan explained. That reduction would come from shaving 1.5 hours off of employees’ work weeks.
In an effort to save money on energy and also compensate for the decreased hour-and-a-half in employee work weeks, Town Hall would shut down for one day per week – Friday is currently proposed – and would stay open longer hours on another weekday.
In the winter, for example, the heat could be turned off on Thursday evening and stay off through the weekend – a savings which adds up, said Town Administrator Mark Andrews.
The underlying budget problem is the fact that as revenue grows, the town’s increasing “fixed” costs for things such as healthcare and insurance grow too, but faster than revenue. Meanwhile, state aid is on the decline, town officials explained.
The School Department also must pay for rising mandated costs associated with special education and for the transportation of homeless students to out-of-district schools.
Recognizing the dire situation, School Department representatives said they would be willing to ask the School Committee to approve a level-funded budget – that is, a budget funded at the same amount as the current year, or approximately $25 million, if it could get political support from the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee for its proposed Proposition 2 ½ override and debt exclusions.
The School Department says approximately $27 million is needed to fund the schools, a budget number the School Committee approved in January. But it is clear that that amount of money just isn’t available.
Thus, the School Committee has put forth Town Meeting warrant articles asking voters to approve a Proposition 2 ½ override to prevent teachers' layoffs, as well as debt exclusions to pay for textbooks, technology, school buses, and building repairs.
An override and the debt exclusions would both raise property taxes in different ways. An override would increase taxes indefinitely by a yet-to-be-proposed percentage, while debt exclusions would increase taxes by a percentage over a yet-to-be-determined number of years. Both would need to be approved by voters at Town Meeting and then at the ballot by the larger electorate.
Without approval of the override and debt exclusions, the School Department will have to lay off approximately 21 teachers, forgo purchasing needed textbooks and technology, and cut funding from summer school at the middle school level, among various other cuts, said Superintendent Dr. Barry Rabinovitch.
The result would put class sizes in the range of 27 to 30 students.
Even with the municipal budget as it stands and the School Department level-funded, a more than $300,000 deficit would remain on the municipal side.
“What I’m looking for is someone to say, ‘We don’t like to raise taxes … but we need to because of the dire straits we are in,’” explained School Committee Chair Geoff Swett, who attended the meeting with member Rhonda Veugen and Rabinovitch because the School Committee could not get a quorum. “If nobody is going to say that, then in my mind, nobody is stepping up to the plate and being a leader in this town.”
Overrides and debt exclusions have historically been unpopular in Wareham, however, and it became clear throughout the meeting that members of the Board of Selectmen were not prepared to immediately support either.
“This is an evolving document,” Selectman Steve Holmes said of the town’s proposed budget. The town administration has to “get it approved by the various unions, departments, etcetera, and then we have to look at it as a Board of Selectmen, as the policy setters, to make sure that what Mr. Andrews and Mr. Sullivan come back to us with is appropriate for the town.”
Holmes worried that if the override and the various debt exclusions are approved by Town Meeting and at the ballot, then the School Department and perhaps other town departments would be requesting more tax increases in the following budget year.
A motion by Selectman Cara Winslow to get a consensus from the Board of Selectmen to move forward with the proposed cuts to the budget and begin necessary talks with unions, for the School Committee representatives to propose the level-funded budget to that committee, and for the Selectmen to “not oppose placing the [Proposition 2 ½] ballot questions on the ballot” failed, with only Winslow in support of the notion.
Swett was frustrated.
“We are asking for support for a level-funded budget which we know to be inadequate and that may in fact significantly put our children at risk,” Swett said. “We’re just asking for a consensus that that’s an acceptable thing, knowing that significant cuts are going to have to be made just to get to that point and that everything else that we actually want to do for our children is going to be up to the town to decide" via Town Meeting and the polls.
Holmes said he couldn’t support such a consensus.
“If you are asking members of a board to come to some consensus on a further vote to put something on the ballot … I think that’s unreasonable,” he said.
Adding to the frustration at the meeting, the Finance Committee wondered which numbers it should use when it makes a decision on the budget and what to recommend to Town Meeting voters.
Per the Town Charter, the number the FinCom must use is the $27 million superintendent’s budget that the School Committee approved in January.
"We are trying to bridge those gaps as it relates to what the School Department needs to function and what the town needs to function," Andrews said. "We need to have a coordinated plan."
Without a consensus that the School Department representatives would ask the School Committee to approve a $25 million budget in exchange for support of the overrides and debt exclusions, FinCom members were weary.
“Time is of the essence. I have 21 pages” of the Town Meeting warrant to go through, said FinCom Chair Frank Heath. “I’m disappointed that we can’t get a consensus today so I know what [numbers] to use so we can start to do the work.”
Heath noted that with the town administrator leaving his post before Town Meeting in April, there is another reason to hustle. Andrews announced at the beginning of the meeting that he would be taking a job in Wenham on April 16.
“I really just came here today to get some level of cooperation between three boards. … I personally do not want to make an eleventh hour decision like we have done in the past two years. I’m just not going to do it,” said FinCom member Bonnie Cottuli. “We’re going to take the budget numbers that we have on Wednesday, [March 21], and take our vote.”
Swett said he wasn’t sure how to proceed.
“I was looking for nothing binding, just a feeling from this body that a certain minimum level of funding was necessary for the children of this town. … I didn’t get that emotional level of support,” he said. “I’m forced to go back to my School Committee and say, ‘Guys, Rhonda and I were there [Saturday]. I can’t guarantee that there will be political support for the children of Wareham just at a level funding.”
Without a response, the Board of Selectmen adjourned.