Friday, January 18, 2002
Bad news on employee pay and benefits pushes deficit to $1 million
Town administrator Madonna McKenzie had bad news for the finance committee (FinCom) at their first budget hearing of the winter on January 9. First was the budget line titled "pensions and benefits," which actually covers all insurance premiums (including employee and teacher group health insurance), and pensions for town employees. Due to increases in all these areas, the amount required will actually be at least $100,000 over what the finance committee had assumed when setting the guidelines for all town departments.
Little control over pensions and benefits
Most of the pensions and benefits expenses are determined for the town as a member of a consortium or other collaborative, so the town has little discretion over the amounts. Thus, this news effectively increased to close to $1 million the gap between the total anticipated budget requests and the income FinCom estimates the town will receive next year, which was the basis for setting the guideline of 5% for the schools, and 2 1/2% for all other departments.
McKenzie also warned the FinCom to expect nonschool budgets to rise an additional $12,000 for merit increases for town employees. Changes in grade level for a third of town employees, part of a multi-year implementation of last spring's wage and classification study, will cost another $30,000 to 40,000 over the guideline.
Finance committee members calculate the million dollar gap as follows:
Despite Simon Platt's estimate that the tax increase resulting from an override to cover all these amounts would be 12%, he was more optimistic than other members of the committee, saying this may not be "a lot worse than other years" at this point in the budget cycle.
Last year a large difference also loomed, and was resolved by reductions in budget requests by both schools and the library, a transfer from the free cash balance, and a Proposition 2-1/2 override, Platt noted. However, selectman Doug Stevenson objected to adopting past solutions as a model for this year, because of large tax increases of the past few years.
Clearly discouraged, committee members discussed these options, including the advantages and disadvantages of a "tiered" override, which would put budget increases for individual departments on the ballot as separate questions to be independently approved or disapproved by voters, with Stevenson and selectman Tim Hult, who was also present at the hearing.
Sharing the pain
FinCom member David Trask and Stevenson both expressed concern about the risk of division and bitterness in the town from an override vote, recalling the negative effects of override campaigns in 1990 and 1991. What is needed to avoid a repeat of that polarization, Trask and Hult emphasized, is a "feeling that the pain is equally shared," by voters, schools and the town.
DSL at town hall?
Platt suggested that commercial zoning or some sort of enterprise solution such as developing DSL (digital subscriber line service) on the Town Hall site or renting town land for cell towers could ease the town's chronic budget pressures by bringing in revenue. He referred to Carlisle School superintendent Davida Fox-Melanson's observation that to remain a rural town with great schools was a very expensive decision.
Other expense increases
McKenzie also presented to the FinCom the general expense budget, which bundles the town administrator, town accountant and town counsel expenses with other, smaller administrative accounts. Increases in general expense over the 2-1/2% guideline included 8% in legal expenses and 13% for help in the accountant's office, and almost 9% for the town administrator. (See table.)
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito