Friday, March 22, 2002
Selectmen place two override levels on Warrant and ballot
by Nancy Pierce
On Tuesday night the board of selectmen voted to place on the ballot two Proposition 2-1/2 override questions, expected to be the focus of discussion, debate and mobilization of advocates and opponents through the May 6 Town Meeting and the May 14 town election.
After more formal statements and pleas from school parents for higher levels to "let us make an intelligent decision," selectmen voted unanimously in favor of the finance committee's (FinCom's) recommended balanced (no override) budget for Fiscal Year 2003. They also approved a question which would raise an additional $393,650 through a Proposition 2-1/2 override, also recommended by the FinCom, which would have to be approved at the town election. FinCom estimates the balanced budget would increase the tax rate by just over 3%, and their suggested override by just under 6%.
A higher level of override, estimated to raise the tax rate approximately 7%, will also be on the ballot. The selectmen split on the vote for the higher override, voting four to one, with selectman Doug Stevenson opposed.
Which of the two override questions would actually determine town spending depends on a two-step process. To be effective, a Proposition 2-1/2 operating override question must be approved twice before it takes effect, first by a majority of voters at Town Meeting, next by a majority at town election. When more than one spending level is offered, the level adopted is the highest amount approved at Town Meeting and by a majority of those voting on that question at town election.
The balanced (no override) budget
The FinCom balanced budget would not require an override, but would constrain most town departments to this year's level of spending, with no salary increases permitted for employees except police and school employees. This budget would provide for nearly $500,000 in unavoidable increases in spending: health and other insurance costs; expenses to borrow for the ladder truck and a dump truck purchased this year; assessments for county retirement and for Concord-Carlisle and Minuteman Science/Technology high schools. Spending would increase slightly for the Carlisle Public School (2%), Gleason Library (1%), and general government (1%). The town would have about 30% less in the reserve fund, used by FinCom to meet unanticipated or "extraordinary" expenses between Town Meetings. This would effectively match the town of Concord's no-override budget.
The 6% override: $394K to police, fire, school
The nearly $400,000 added by the 6% override would provide a modest budgets increase for the schools and most departments over current year levels. The Carlisle school budget would rise 5% over this year, the police by 6%, fire by 9%, council on aging 10%, library 3%, and general government by about 6%.
The higher "7%" override level would provide about $152,000 in additional spending, but there was almost no public discussion of how these funds would be allocated to department budgets.
No on 8% override
Selectmen also considered a third override, which would have added another $142,000 to the 7% level and raised the tax rate by an estimated 8%. However, this level of spending was not supported by a majority of the selectmen and will not appear on the ballot. (Selectmen Tim Hult and Carol Peters voted in favor, with chair John Ballantine, Vivian Chaput and Doug Stevenson opposed.)
Conservation fund transfer
Early in the meeting selectmen discussed an eleventh hour proposal by town counsel to transfer $93,000 from the conservation fund, established for land and water rights acquisition by a 1999 override vote, to the operating budget. The transfer had been recommended by FinCom to cover a legal settlement with the EPA over contamination of the site to which the town sent its oil for recycling. However, the complicated proposal would require several transfers of funds over the next two years, as well as approval of two apparently reluctant committees (conservation commission and FinCom), and a rapid reformulation of nearly all town budget levels. After much discussion decisions on whether to pursue this possibility were left to next week.
Warrant to close on Monday
Selectmen will meet Monday March 25 at 8 am, to review allocations to particular budgets and to discuss and vote on the remaining articles proposed by town departments for the Warrant for Town Meeting.
Selectmen worry about tax impact
In discussions leading up to this week's decision, selectmen have expressed conflicting concerns. All have worried about the effects on town services if the draconian no-override budget recommended by FinCom is not supplemented by funds from an override, and whether the $394K override suggested by FinCom is too high to be approved. Ballantine has noted the potential problems for other town departments if the town ultimately votes for an assessment for the high school lower than that approved by the town of Concord.
Selectmen have also tried to protect particular town departments, especially the schools, police, fire and council on aging, and to keep their commitment to last year's wage and salary classification study recommendations. To stay competitive with other towns, the town would increase salary grades for one-third of non-contractual employees each year.
However, the strongest motivation for both selectmen and FinCom members has been to avoid a tax increase above, with selectmen focused on the risk that another tax increase over 5% will force people with no children in school to leave town. Vivian Chaput pointed out that in the last four years taxes have increased nearly one-third. Ballantine noted that even the lower 6% override is likely to result in an eventual tax rate increase of 8% or more, given an expected deficit from this year to be added to next year's tax bill plus a CPA surcharge now averaging 1.5%. "Some might not consider [an 8% increase] a constrained budget," he commented.
Selectman Tim Hult, while supporting the highest level of override on the ballot, noted that town leaders "as a group have to think through [these] rapid increases in operating increases," particularly in labor costs. The school budgets are "out of synch" with the number of children in the school, even after adjusting for inflation, he noted, adding that increases in labor costs contribute to these rises.
Selectmen also responded to parents' contention that putting higher override levels on the ballot would let voters make an "intelligent" decision. Peters cited that argument in supporting the failed "8%" level, saying she felt "strongly that voters should have . . . choices." Ballantine noted, "We've heard that people want choice and . . . direct democracy [should determine budget levels]." The three selectmen who opposed that highest level declared that they were fulfilling the board's responsibility to make their "best judgments" (Ballantine) about the "best agenda for the town" (Stevenson).
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito