Friday, April 27, 2001
Two towns move closer on CCHS budget
Monday evening the Concord Town Meeting voted to approve the revised Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC) budget request for fiscal year 2002. Since the same budget request will be presented before the Carlisle Town Meeting on May 14, this vote moved the towns of Concord and Carlisle one step closer to agreement on the high school budget.
However, budget appropriations will not be final until citizens of both towns vote to approve the needed Proposition 2-1/2 budget overrides at their respective spring town elections next month. Each town will have two or more budget options to consider. Since Concord has never passed an override, it is possible, even probable, that the towns will still vote different budgets for the high school. (See article on page 5, What happens if towns disagree on CCHS budget?)
Carlisle sets 1a,1b budget levels
The Warrant for the Carlisle Town Meeting, and the corresponding override ballot questions at the town election, will ask voters to approve one of two CCHS budget levels. Ballot question 1a asks Carlisle voters to approve the RSCs current (revised) FY02 budget request requiring an override of $150,057. Ballot question 1b asks for a lower amount, requiring an override of $108,733. If both questions were to fail at the polls, Carlisle could only contribute funds up to its Proposition 2-1/2 levy limit, requiring large cuts in the RSC budget (see table on page 5). The Carlisle FinCom supports ballot question 1b; the selectmen have not yet taken a position on either ballot question.
Concord vote uncertain
In Concord the selectmen will not set the override questions until after the Town Meeting. The Town Meeting vote last Monday effectively set the upper limit for the CCHS budget, which corresponds to Carlisle ballot question 1a and the RSC revised budget. However, as in Carlisle, Concord voters will face several ballot questions proposing progressively lower overrides (and requiring progressively larger budget cuts). If, as in the past, Concord voters reject all override amounts, Concord will not be able to appropriate any funds in excess of its levy limit. The Concord FinCom supports an override that falls far short of the amount requested by the RSC, and is lower than either 1a or 1b (see graph on page 4). Concord town elections will be held sometime between May 30 and June 19.
This uncertainty was discussed at an unusual joint meeting of over 30 members of the leadership of Carlisle and Concord on April 19. Welcoming guests from the south to Carlisle,chair of the Carlisle board of selectmen Michael Fitzgerald asked them to pull the collective wisdom of the two towns . . . together to effectively communicate . . . options for resolving these uncertainties and confusion about the budget for Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS).
Present were all Carlisle selectmen and nearly all Carlisles finance committee, representatives of Concord selectmen and finance committee, moderators and town clerks of both towns, Concords town manager and finance director, Carlisles town administrator and town counsel, and members of the regional school committee.
Concord budget pressures
At the Concord Town Meeting, the Concord Finance Committee recommended the highest ever total override of nearly $2 million, supporting the elementary and high schools and the town budget.
This year many needs for funds have converged with a big impact, including not only operating overrides but consideration of a school building program that could total $73 million, and rebuilding a community center, according to Concord selectman and former regional school committee chair Ruth Lauer at the April 19 joint meeting. This year Concord selectmen anticipate placing as many as nine questions on the ballot for town elections.
Given these pressures, is there any chance an override to fund the Concord-Carlisle High School budget for next year will pass in Concord, Carlisle chair of the board of selectmen Michael Fitzgerald asked. Concord selectmen were uncertain, although Lauer found some hope in past support of the schools. I think it would change our view of ourselves as a community if we [fail to support] the schools, she said.
Concord override very iffy
Concord FinCom vice-chair Dick Levinson was more pessimistic, calling the chances of even the lowest override passing very iffy, and expressed his worry about the same pressures continuing over the next few years. Compounding a 9% increase over each of the next five years will create a very high burden for seniors and middle income taxpayers, and I would not want to see us drive them out of town, he argued.
RSC chair Lauren Walters responded that the school committee has reduced budget requests for the elementary and high schools by a total of $800,000, and that no one has any interest in driving anyone out of Concord or Carlisle because of high tax rates. However, he continued, the adoption of guidelines proposed by the Concord FinCom or the Concord levy limit would have serious . . . devastating effects on the high school.
How did Concord get here?
I dont feel I understand how we got stuck here when we havent been before, Carlisle moderator Sarah Brophy responded when asked to comment on the uncertainty surrounding the budget for the high school this year. Weve never confronted an [operating] override before, chair of the Concord selectmen Rick Wheeler explained, although Lauer later reminisced about the last failure to pass an operating override for CCHS, in 1991.
Some years school and finance committees have lowered budget requests to avoid calling for overrides in Concord and/or Carlisle. Requested budgets well over the Concord levy limit have also been funded from increases averaging 18% in state aid, or transfers from abundant free cash, which several years ago reached 12% of operating expenses, according to Levinson. (The target for most towns is usually 5% of the operating budget.) This year, however, free cash is no longer high, the Concord FinCom predicts no or very low increases in state aid, and growth in other non property tax revenues (i.e. motor vehicles, interest earnings) has also slowed, according to Anthony Logalbo, Concord finance director.
For the town of Carlisle to be able to support a higher level of assessment than Concord without an override is unusual, possibly unprecedented in the 44-year history of the region. Carlisle selectman Doug Stevenson explained that this year Carlisle benefited from new growth (the amount added to the Proposition 2 1/2 levy limit due to added value from additions, new construction and land development) higher than expected, and excess levy capacity resulting from a mismatch between a successful override and a town meeting appropriation that failed.
A little recognized side effect of passing two different levels of override would be that passing an override permanently raises the levy limit of a town, and in the case of the town passing the higher override there would be no matching appropriation, since the budget would be at the lower amount. This situation creates what Carlisle selectman Michael Fitzgerald referred to excess levy capacity, allowing that town in future years to use this capacity to increase expenses without a proposition 2 1/2 ballot vote.)