Friday, May 31, 2002
ConsCom weighs wisdom and legality of funds transfer
The conservation commission is the latest town body forced to grapple with opposing but undeniably legitimate fiscal priorities. Faced with a personal appeal for help from selectman John Ballantine, the commission spent the better part of its May 23 meeting weighing the wisdom and legality of a partial transfer of monies from the conservation fund to the town's operating budget.
Ballantine reviews need for funds
Ballantine reviewed decisions made by the board of selectmen at their contentious May 21 session, where they scheduled a June 17 Special Town Meeting to act on two new budget articles. The first would call for approval of approximately $136,000 to finance wage and salary increases for town employees who would otherwise forfeit any hikes: the second would allot $91,000 to meet the lower of Concord's two overrides passed by their voters to fund Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS) for the coming year.
The $138,000 for Carlisle employees would be paid from $150,000 in unanticipated revenues coming primarily from the state, while the CCHS figure would tap remaining revenues, plus a $75,000 Carlisle override that would go to the voters for approval a week later. However, Ballantine warned that the regional school committee is still demanding $138,000 rather than $91,000 to match the higher of the override levels already approved by Concord voters. This could force Carlisle to come up with an additional $50,000 for CCHS, an amount the selectmen hoped could be made up in further transfers from the stabilization, recreation, ambulance and conservation funds. Otherwise the town employees might be deprived of cost-of-living and/or wage classification raises.
This left the commission in an uncomfortable position. As member Peter Burn pointed out, town counsel has previously advised them that under Chapter 40 of the state Conservation Commission Act, they cannot use the $112,650 now in the conservation fund for anything except conservation purposes. The town voted in the spring of 1999 to place $100,000 in a nearly exhausted conservation fund to be used for activities related to future land acquisition; the remainder represents accrued interest. Therefore the questions before the commission were twofold was there any legal method whereby they could make such a transfer, and if so, would they be willing to divert $15,000 to the cause.
Commissioner Jonathan Beakley was the first to declare that, although he found the whole concept distasteful, he would be willing to contribute this once to help in an emergency situation. Member Tom Brownrigg was less sanguine, saying, "I'm not opposed to the raise for employees, but I don't think this is the way to do itIt sets a very bad precedent and opens the door to more incursions next year." This fear was also expressed by commissioner Roy Watson who said he remembered the finance committee comment that next year may be even worse.
A technical dodge
Although opposed in principle to the transfer, chair Christine Kavalauskas came up with a possible legal solution, proposing that the commission might be able to earmark some funds to help the town pay the $33,000 installment due on the purchase of the Hutchins/Robbins agricultural fields off Curve Street. Beakley found this approach more justifiable than earmarking the money for salaries. This technical dodge led conservation administrator Sylvia Willard to pose a basic question, "If you do that now, how would you fight the pressure to do it again next year?" Beakley's suggestion was to accompany their pledge with a letter stating unequivocally that they would not agree to do the same thing another year. Commissioner John Lee went a step further, saying that if the budget situation improved, they should request that the money be refunded at a future Town Meeting.
In a straw vote predicated on town counsel approval, the commissioners indicated a willingness to contribute the amount of the interest so far accrued in the conservation fund. The exact amount, in the $10,000 to $12,000 range, will be voted on at the commission's June 13 meeting. However, they hoped a favorable turn of events might make this action unnecessary and allow them to preserve funds the town could need to keep it in the bidding game, should an ideal municipal land purchase opportunity arise.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito