Carlisle’s Finance Committee keeps an eye on the pie

by Cecile Sandwen

Finance Committee members provide input during Annual Town Meeting in May. Shown (left to right) are: retiring Chair David Guarino, new Chair Jerry Lerman, Michael Bishop, David Verrill, Barbara Bjornson and David Model. Missing from the picture: Kevin Perkins. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

“I’m always interested in where my taxes are going,” says Finance Committee (FinCom) Chair David Guarino. He adds, “Being a FinCom member is a great way to get a sense of what is going on in town. We’re in the middle of everything.” Guarino, who has been on the board four years, is wrapping up a year as chair and will pass the baton to Jerry Lerner in July. He adds, “Short of the Board of Selectmen, no one is as involved with other boards” as the FinCom. “It’s given me an appreciation for town departments. There’s a lot more going on at Town Hall than I was aware of.”

Guarino has found his year as chair a challenge. There are many meetings in addition to the twice-per-month FinCom reviews. “Any time there’s a question of finances, they want someone from the FinCom there,” he says. He notes the value of having three other members who have been on the board five or six years. “Everyone understands the process,” he says, adding, “But this job would be next to impossible without [Treasurer] Larry Barton and [Town Administrator] Tim Goddard. It’s very hard as a volunteer to understand the departments as they do.”

Main job to balance the budget

“Our main job is to present and recommend a balanced budget each year,” says Guarino. That budget must conform to state Proposition 2½ tax limits without any overrides. This is a year-long activity, “for FY 2013 we will start in August putting together projections.” Revenue projections are based on a 2 ½% increase in taxes, with best guesses for state aid, local receipts and new real estate growth. Cost projections are based on previous years’ budgets with an eye toward any new expenses.

In September, a letter is sent to all departments asking them to put together their budget needs with an eye toward staying within a certain percentage increase or decrease from last year. Guarino notes that two years ago each department was asked to present a 10% budget cut. Last year, each began with a 2% increase. “It all flows from those August and early September meetings,” he says. Through fall, departments come to the FinCom to present their requested budgets.

By December, “we’ve heard from everybody and can put out a preliminary draft budget” that also includes updated numbers for revenues and expenses. Throughout February and March, departments revisit, presenting updated views of operations and accounts, and making the case for any requested additional funds. The public is invited to all FinCom meetings, which are posted at Town Hall and in the Mosquito calendar. Guarino says the board rarely receives public input; most is through the Mosquito letters to the editor.

Looking at the long term

“No business operates without three to five year projections, says Guarino. As the FinCom looks forward to financing two or three school projects, the need for long-term planning has become obvious. Guarino says that Barton and volunteer townspeople have helped put together some long-range projections of where the tax rate could be in a few years without cost control. “If we can’t tighten on construction costs, we need to tighten on operations,” he says. “We need to make sure that whatever project we decide on is actually affordable for Carlisle.”

Some towns facing school building projects have set aside funds to soften the future cost. He said that Carlisle has saved some funds in the Stabilization Fund, and Free Cash is at a historic high. However, to raise the tax rate to add to the accounts is “beyond our scope,” he says, noting that keeping the tax rate low “is almost the same as saving.”

Guarino says Carlisle works extensively with the Concord FinCom and sees a different method of operation. “It’s a much bigger committee, and more formal. Maybe we’re a little more focused on keeping the tax rate low.” While Concord has commercial properties to tax, “We know the money’s coming out of someone’s real estate bill.” In addition, “a significant portion of the people (of Carlisle) is headed for retirement age, and there’s an expectation more will be on fixed incomes. That’s our overarching concern because we have no commercial base to make up the slack.” It helps that in Carlisle, “We’re all pulling in the same direction,” he says, noting the Selectmen, boards and schools have been sympathetic to the need for cost control.

Guarino has been a Carlisle resident for four years, and got involved because his wife, Kelly Guarino, was on the Conservation Commission. “I saw what she was doing was pretty rewarding. The FinCom was the committee closest to what I actually do for a living, so I could have some knowledgeable input. Being new in town, I’ve found it a good way to meet people, and I like the people in the group.” He points to a strong board, with three chief financial officers in Dave Model, Barbara Bjornson and Dave Verrill. Lerman is a software engineer with a background in finance, Mike Bishop is an investment advisor, and Kevin Perkins is a manager at EMC. Guarino has an MBA in finance and is a tax lawyer.

Members of the FinCom are appointed by the Selectmen. It’s a pretty high-powered group, but Guarino says, “There’s always room for someone who’s interested and has some background. You don’t have to be an accountant. Common sense will get you through.” Meetings are every other Monday night during the budget process from September to April. Guarino says it is useful to have seven on the board, as the frequency of meetings can make it tough to get a full board every time. Terms are for three years. ∆