Friday, October 11, 2002
FinCom hopes to avoid spring budget battle
It's only early October, but already the Carlisle Finance Committee (FinCom) is preparing for another potentially tumultuous spring budget season. At its October 2 meeting, the FinCom reviewed reactions to its preliminary budget presentations and looked for ways to improve on the budget process of last spring which required an extra Town Meeting and election to resolve.
The FinCom presented its preliminary budget to the Concord selectmen, regional school committee (RSC) and, informally, to the Carlisle school. This budget, which uses very preliminary "best guess" revenue and spending assumptions, and assumes no override, forecasts only a 3-to-4% increase in overall town spending in FY04. It also projects that for each additional 1% over that amount allocated to support school budgets, 3% must be taken out of town budgets. As a result, an overall school increase of 6% could leave Carlisle town departments with shrinking budgets in the face of a growing town population and rising costs.
RSC assumes override
According to John Nock, FinCom liaison to the regional school committee, "The [RSC] does not really believe it." He reported, "They assume an override will occur and were surprised we took the balanced budget approach. They thought we were being stubborn and difficult." From their point of view, Carlisle's position as one of the most affluent communities in the state makes it difficult to accept the need for tight restraint.
Reaction from the Carlisle school was more accepting, according to liaison Lisa Jensen-Fellows. "They are sensitive that the town is not interested in overrides" and will not expect large budget increases. But while budget constraint this year was managed, the feeling is that further cuts next year would mean "cuts in core curriculum and larger class sizes." Enrollment continues to rise, and teacher and bus contacts are up for renewal this year, raising the possibility of more cost pressure.
FinCom Chair Larry Barton reported that Mike Fitzgerald, a member of both the Carlisle and regional school committees, questioned the value of the preliminary budget, saying (according to Barton) "our revenue assumptions are always too conservative." FinCom member Tony Allison noted the FY03 FinCom budget was off by only "$40 to $50K not bad in an $18-million budget," and added, "It's important they understand our assumptions so they know we're not trying to low ball." Jensen-Fellows suggested another tack, asking, "What else can we be using to make better estimates?"
Improving the budget guideline
Barton suggested defining now "what information is needed and from whom" to come up with a better guideline for FY04 budgets. Noting that past practice was "somewhat crude and arbitrary," Barton proposed the guideline might have more credibility if it were based on information from departments, including salary contracts and other non-discretionary costs. "We need to make sure the wage and classification [salary increases for town employees] is included," he added.
Discussion revealed a range of opinion regarding what the FinCom's role should be. Deb Belanger endorsed the idea of a "more bottom-up approach," but was concerned that absorbing salary costs into the budget unquestioned "doesn't encourage department heads to try to do better." She wondered if the FinCom should get more involved in departmental financial decisions: "Couldn't we help them think of different ways of managing resources?" Allison noted this should be the job of the elected school boards and department heads, with Barton adding, "Though they haven't looked at the universe the way we might." Championing the opposite extreme, Nock recommended maintaining the usual FinCom "top-down" approach and increasing budgets based on enrollment growth or, in the case of town government, growth in population.
It was finally agreed to pursue both paths. Information will be solicited from departments regarding wages, contracts, and "other things that might bite us." The new tax assessor, John Speidel will be invited to a FinCom meeting to explain his methodology for predicting new real estate growth, a statistic that will have significant impact on predictions of town revenues. Town treasurer Ann Vandal will also be invited to give an overview of town costs and debt financing. In addition, Nock's methodology will be fed into a statistical model developed by Jensen-Fellows and results presented at a later date.
Can Concord and Carlisle agree?
The Concord FinCom will finalize their preliminary guideline in mid-October. Barton expressed hope that the Concord FinCom and selectmen can agree on a guideline which is also acceptable to the corresponding Carlisle committees. He believes endorsement by all four committees would greatly improve chances of passage at the two annual Town Meetings and elections, and avoid mismatched override levels which could again require additional Town Meetings to resolve. Discussion ensued as to how best to ensure Carlisle's budget limitations were recognized in the Concord guideline negotiations. A meeting was called for October 9 to review the results of a Concord guideline committee meeting to take place October 3, and to further refine a Carlisle strategy.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito