Budget meeting reveals dire situation, uncertainty in how to proceed

By Jaime Rebhan | Mar 17, 2012

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.

Comments (8)
Posted by: Mr. M. | Mar 18, 2012 08:11

This story should make every Wareham resident concerned.

Posted by: zinzindorff9 | Mar 18, 2012 09:54

Just an observation as a thirty year resident, A 2 1/2 proposal might pass at an emotional town meeting of two hundred fifty concerned citizens, but at a secret ballot box with the votes of 3700 concerned citizens, "it would be a cold day in hell to ever pass."  I believe most voters do not have any faith in the way our schools are run. (Too much administration) Personally I would support any 2 1/2 proposal if it would get our school bus program "outsourced!"

Posted by: extremelyconcerned | Mar 18, 2012 21:16

You are overlooking the fact that Andrew’s and the BoS have consistently given town employees over inflated salaries. People like the chief of police and the Rabinovitch are just two people that come to mine. They say they need to talk to the unions but they did not say that they are willing to cut their salaries at all. I continue to say our elected officials and the people that we have hired are not fiscally responsible and should be fired. Until we begin paying for performance this is what we will continue to have. Our children are important to each of us but do not be fooled into voting for an over-ride when they are not looking at the total picture. Cut town employee salaries, cut fat in high places, and when all the fat is cut out of the budget then come and talk to me.

Posted by: Dick Paulsen | Mar 19, 2012 07:45

It' easy and fashionable to blame those currently in place (or in the case of Mr. Andrews, recently in place).


However, the problems that we face go back 25 or 30 years and the fault yes does lie with Town Administrators but more at the feet of the Selectmen.


Let me elaborate.  In our Saturday joint-session, Geoff Swett pointed out that the growth rate of benefits in the last 12 years was approximately triple the growth rate in all other expenses, including wages.  And that was true for both the town and the schools.


And that is the root of the problem, the Selectmen never told the then current administrator whoever it was to keep a lid on benefit increases.


Should the Town Administrators have thought this through on their, absolutely, but for the most part they obviously didn't, they acquiesced, and I might add, so did the School Department.


Because we didn't take care of potential issues before they escalated into real problems, we have this mess to contend with, and a mess it is.


As to  whether we get out of the immediate problem, we shall, as they say, see.


But for the longer term, the Selectmen need independent resources that they can call upon to sort through the issues.  Why?  Because-and I mean no disrespect-they don't for the most part have the technical expertise to delve into "solutions" such as "should we go to $50 co-pays and $5,000 deductibles"-and I am not suggesting that those are the "numbers- but they illustrate the point that the solution is to look forward 10 or 15 years, make assumptions and then using present-value techniques bring them back to current dollars, that is if we set a policy of having benefits-for instance-not grow faster than revenues, "here is the cost"  and then they could set the course.



That expertise not only exists but is widely used in business but towns-Wareham amongst them-have never gone down that path.  I would obviously argue that we should and actually can.



For instance, we have an $87 million unfunded liability for town employee retiree health care and every three years an actuary has to certify what we are doing or not doing as the case maybe.  Well, we could instruct him to change the variables in certain respects and he in turn could then tell us what the implications might be. For instance, if we decided that health benefits should go up my no more than 1 1/2 percent for each of the next 10 years, he could give us a reasoned answer as to how to accomplish that goal.


And my pet idea is to motor up to Kennedy or Bentley and bring on one or two interns and have them use their technical skills backed up by the mentors at the schools to advise the Selectmen.



Again, let me make the point, the Selectmen are not deficient, but they have too much on their collective plates and I do mean "plates" not plate.  They need assistance and interns are relatively inexpensive.  They will not answer the whole problem but they might get us down the road a bit, to see through the fog.  And as to the actuary, that should be rather straightforward, he has to do the work anyway and he has all the numbers.  He can or at least should be able to plug in various assumptions and although we may not like the results, we will at least know where we stand.


And finally, lest I forget, these opinions are wholly my own.



We are there,we are at the crossroads, like it or not.





Posted by: KAREN SPINKS | Mar 19, 2012 12:11

In my opinion, the town also really needs to address where it's heading in terms of Special Education and transportation.  This may mean hiring an outside  consulting firm to evaluate Warehams current needs  and to determine if taxpayer funds are being used optimally.  For example, is it necessary to transport so many students out of town?  Why can't Wareham go into the business of providing its own special needs programs that offer placements to other towns? This would bring  in revenue for the town to the tune of $45,000 per student.   Instead of spending ourselvers into bankruptcy  , why don't we see this as a business opportunity?

I believe (Mr Fernandez?) a blogger posted that one third of Wareham students have disabilities.  Note that behavioral issues are also classed as a disability.  If this is the case, Wareham is not able to support an educational system structured in this way..  The town needs to evaluate, probably by enaging a consulting company, how expediture can be reduced both in special education and transportation.

Posted by: Geoff Swett | Mar 19, 2012 21:38

Ms. Spinks - The School Committee agrees with you.  It is the reason we approved the creation of the West Wareham Academy and the Junio/Senior Cooperative High School.  West Wareham and the Cooperative School have reduced the need for expensive Collaborative placements and the associated transportation costs.  Unfortunately, other more unusual dsiabilities and the really expensive ($100,000+) residential placements cannot be avoided by such actions as well as the responsibility to transport homeless children back to their communities of origin.  These actions, among others, have allowed the District to keep average annual increases in spending over the last twelve years to less than 2% and Transportation to just a little over 1%.

Posted by: KAREN SPINKS | Mar 20, 2012 20:38

Mr Swett.....Thank you for your response.

Posted by: P-SPAN | Mar 21, 2012 20:33

3/17/12 BoS/FinCom/SC Joint Mtg. video ---> http://youtu.be/ANmCB1b7UW8

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