Wareham officials face tough budget decisions as expenses continue to climb faster than revenue
With expenses stemming from factors out of the town's control and an approximately $1 million difference between what school officials say is needed to fund the schools and what the town can offer, everyone agrees: The only way Wareham is going to get out of its years-long struggle with tumultuous budget cuts is to increase revenue.
But with the residents voicing a resounding "no" at the polls last July when faced with increasing property taxes to fund needs of the School Department, the town is going to have to come up with other options.
Town Administrator Derek Sullivan painted the first picture of the town's budget for next year, fiscal year 2014, during a public hearing of the School Committee, Board of Selectmen, and Finance Committee on Wednesday.
"This is an available-revenue budget," Sullivan explained. "It is not a needs-based budget. It does not satisfy the needs of the schools, and it does not satisfy the needs of the town either."
With a nearly $1.2 million increase in health care, and required increases for payments of debt, for students to attend Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School, for retirement, and for insurance, the town is looking at nearly a $2 million increase in costs next year.
But the town is only looking at an approximately $1.2 million increase in revenue — the money brought in from property taxes, new growth, taxes, licenses, permits, and other sources.
The result was a $777,000 deficit just to keep funding the services that the town currently pays for.
"We don't have a lot of revenue coming in," said Sullivan. "What's been put together is the funding that we have, trying to keep services — not even level services, but trying to keep services."
Sullivan noted that inspectional services fees have been increased this year for the first time since 2005, as have fees for municipal liens, but it just isn't enough.
Sullivan is hoping to fill the gap by saving $450,000 by, among other things, changing the town's healthcare plan, by not adding funds to town savings, not funding a new lease for police cruisers, and by eliminating three full-time positions.
The result puts the town approximately $839,500 in the black, with the $62,000 difference earmarked for the School Department.
"The rest of that money, we put into the school budget," said Sullivan. "I know it's not much, but that's what we had available and what we needed to do."
But Superintendent Dr. Barry Rabinovitch's $28.6 million School Department budget is 7% above last year's $26.7 million budget, and he says that's what the School Department needs in order to keep providing the services it is currently providing.
Of the $28.6 million, $27 million is "net school spending," that is, everything the school district pays for other than transportation. The remaining $1.6 million is for transportation expenses.
School officials attributed the bulk of the budget increase to collective bargaining agreements, supplies and maintenance, and the purchase of textbooks that were not bought this year, when school officials hoped voters would approve a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion — a temporary property tax increase — to fund the books. The effort failed.
The hearing was sparsely attended, but a couple of parents rose to voice concerns.
"I don't think [the school budget] is ambitious at all," said Jamie Pelletier, whose daughter attends Upper Cape Tech and whose son attends Minot Forest Elementary.
Pelletier says she struggles each year with the decision of whether to keep her children in the school system. Her 9th-grader ended up at Upper Cape, and Pelletier said she wished that she wasn't forced to weigh the options as a result of the district's dwindling resources.
"I graduated from Wareham High School, and I had an amazing experience," she said.
Even just considering the funding allocated for Wareham's classrooms, a more than $1 million deficit remains between what the School Department says it needs and what the town says it can give.
The conversation quickly turned to the fundamental problem: lack of revenue.
"We have to figure out how to solve this financial problem, and it can't be on the backs of the children. It can't be on the backs of the senior citizens…" said Finance Committee member Frank Heath, who noted that he would not seek a reappointment to the committee out of frustration that "nobody in this town seems to want to sit down and do the hard bargaining that is going to make this down survive and grow into the future."
School Committee Chair Geoff Swett sees Wareham's problem as part of a national trend.
"We cannot afford, any longer, the services that we have come to expect," he said. "That's why we run trillion dollar deficits on a national level."
Despite the grim news, School Committee member Cliff Sylvia was optimistic.
"I hear people talking about the realization that you can't solve a revenue problem on the expense side of the budget," he said. "Wareham is a unique place with unique problems, but for the first time in a long time, I'm hearing a commitment to work together and kind of solve it."
Wareham Week will provide updates as the budget season progresses. Residents will be asked to approve the town's budget at Town Meeting in April.
A presentation of the School Department budget is linked below. More documents will be added as they are obtained.