Friday, November 8, 2002
FinCom proposes no-override budget for FY04 High school assessment may drop by 1.7%
With town revenues expected to increase a mere 2.3% in the next fiscal year, the Carlisle Finance Committee (FinCom) sat down on October 29 to ponder the division of the pie projected to be the "FY04 guideline budget." In past years the FinCom guideline budget, which by law may include no more than 2-1/2% increase in property taxes, was seen only as a starting point, with the real budget likely to include an override of the Proposition 2-1/2 limitation. This year the FinCom's approach is quite different, with several members warning that, given the failure of last year's override, the guideline budget may end up being the final town budget.
With twelve to fifteen citizens in the audience, chair Larry Barton launched into an analysis of revenue growth, with the unspoken assumption that each department will receive their last year's budget amount plus some split of any increase in town revenues.
Town revenues come from three sources: property tax, state aid, and local receipts. The property tax analysis, presented by Barton, reflects an increase in property assessments and a decrease in new real estate growth (-4.63%). Overall property tax revenue is expected to increase 5.51%. State aid is projected to drop 5.7%, including a 39% decrease in state payments in lieu of taxes (voluntary payments to offset the loss of taxes on state land), and no funding at all for highway projects. Local receipts, including motor vehicle excise taxes, fees, fines, and other charges, are expected to decrease 3.02%.
Predicting next year's revenues at this early date is as much art as science, and the numbers are often no more than "best guess" estimates. For example, the town has yet to be given solid information on what to expect from the state. As FinCom member Deb Belanger observed, "We may be exposed to an overstatement in local aid." In addition, new real estate growth, called "a moving target" by member Tony Allison, relies on looking at current growth and making some assumptions about next year's growth, a subject on which even economists armed with the best tools can disagree. Barton pointed out that the process of projecting new growth "is well thought out," but nobody knows what the real number will be.
Insurance, other costs
The FinCom then looked at costs that are pre-committed or uncontrollable. Blanket (liability) and group insurance are expected to rise 20%. The Middlesex County Retirement assessment will rise over 30% to $388,924. Citizen-proposed expenditures that pass at Town Meeting have historically required $240,000. An amount of $40,000 was set aside for the wage and salary classification adjustment, and the reserve fund was increased 42% to $125,000 in recognition of rising legal fees. (The reserve fund is for unexpected expenses that arise after a budget is passed.) After these non-discretionary costs were subtracted from projected revenues, the amount available to the schools and the town departments was $179,142, a 1.23% increase over last year.
CCHS assessment may drop
Hoping to forestall any heart attacks, Barton then delivered the one piece of good news he had to offer — the high school may actually require less money from Carlisle. The ratio of Carlisle students dropped this year from 29.32% to 28.51%.
The Concord Finance Committee has projected two FY04 budgets. At the Concord levy-limit budget (or no-override budget), Concord's share of the CCHS budget increases by 2.198%, while Carlisle's assessment drops by $63,637 (-1.71%). The Concord FinCom also set an override budget that would raise their assessment 7.621% and Carlisle's 3.462% or $125,791.
Discussion ensued as to whether to match Concord's levy-limit budget or to set aside an additional amount for the high school in case a higher budget level passes in Concord. According to the regional school agreement, in order to avoid a protracted process of reconciliation Carlisle and Concord must fund the regional high school at the same level. Given that Concord already has two possible budget levels to be voted on, and may have more, what level should Carlisle shoot for?
Member Lisa Jensen-Fellows noted that the high school received a 6- to 7%-increase last year, versus a 2% increase for the Carlisle School (CPS), and even less for town government. She concluded, "From a fairness perspective, I'd rather see that [money] go to our [local] school and our town departments." John Nock, arguing for a higher amount for the high school, pointed out that historically the Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) budget has remained relatively constant while the CPS budget has increased each year. He added, "And I think it should have. They had to make it up" after programs were eliminated during the budget crisis of 1990. Allison assigned the discrepancy in budget growth to the population increase at the Carlisle School, which "has almost doubled," while CCHS has fewer students now than in the 1980s.
Should Carlisle match
a Concord override?
To reach the Concord FinCom override level would require an additional $189,428 for the high school over the levy limit budget, an amount that would leave virtually no increase for any other town entity. Nock indicated the Carlisle FinCom had tried to communicate to Concord that $70,000 to $90,000 was "the maximum we would be comfortable with [for CCHS] and they came in way below and way above." He suggested, "Why don't we propose what we think we should?" He also noted the Concord FinCom override level represents an 8.9% increase in property taxes in that town. Calling this level "not sustainable," he doubted the Concord selectmen or regional school committee would propose a level higher.
In the end, the FinCom adopted the levy-limit assessment of $3,569,990 for the high school, with five voting for and Nock voting against (Simon Platt was not present). As this amount was less than Carlisle's assessment last year, the increase available for the Carlisle School, Minuteman Regional, and town departments at this point rose to $281,779, or 1.53%. A proposal to reserve an amount for the high school in case a higher assessment level passes in Concord was dropped due to the small amount of money available.
Town government weighs in
After Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie reported the wage and classification salary adjustments would cost $59,000, not the $40,000 in the original cost estimates, a vote passed to set aside this amount. These adjustments will bring Carlisle town employees to salary levels comparable to employees with similar jobs in other towns. Jensen-Fellow called this item "a priority to fully fund. We're fixing past injustice." Forty town employees will receive salary adjustments in this round. The increase available for other purposes was now whittled to $262,779.
McKenzie then presented numbers indicating $70,000 would have to be set aside to fully fund contractual increases in police salaries. It was felt that some parts of this increase could be mitigated if services were reduced, and it was decided to keep these increases as part of the discretionary town budget.
After evaluating a few proposals for splitting the remaining available $263,779, a vote passed unanimously to give the Carlisle School $189,546, a 2.6% increase, and the town departments, including police, $73,233, a 2% increase. The Minuteman Regional School received no increase. The higher number for the Carlisle School reflects continuing, though slowing, growth in school population, with a 2.9% increase this year versus over 4% last.
The audience comments
Members of the audience on both side of the budget divide praised the FinCom discussion. Larry Bearfield of the Carlisle Citizens for Fair Taxation, noting the hard work that went into the FinCom analyses, said, "I'm glad you're our FinCom. You do a great job." Laura Snowdon of the Carlisle Education Foundation expressed "appreciation for this involved discussion." She then asked the FinCom to recognize that the CEF this year picked up the tab for $100,000 in [school] budgetary items, and "that's not our mission." Parent Andy Gettys said that cuts this year at CPS "may take a while to show their impacts" and Debbie Dawson of the Carlisle School Association, said "I don't want to see the hole dug so deep the school can't get out."
Over the next months, each department will be asked to present a budget consistent with the guideline. Said Barton, "Tell us what you can do at the levy limit budget. If you request an amount above, [tell us] what those elements would be that take us above." In this way the FinCom can determine whether or not to recommend an override and can communicate to voters just what will be lost if an override does not pass.
Barton then warned that a variety of conditions could require overrides. He noted the guideline budget contains no allowance for a wastewater treatment plant at the Carlisle School, repairs to the Greenough Dam, or upgrades to the pipes at the school that are causing roof leaks. "Without a whole lot of adding up we could get to a $400-$500,000 override, and that's assuming our revenue assumptions bear up," he warned. If so, the FinCom hopes the current atmosphere of congeniality can be maintained throughout the long process, or it could be another tumultuous spring. levy limit budget. If you request an amount above, [tell us] what those elements would be that take us above." In this way the FinCom can determine whether or not to recommend an override and can communicate to voters just what will be lost if an override does not pass.
Barton then warned that a variety of conditions could require overrides. He noted the guideline budget contains no allowance for a wastewater treatment plant at the Carlisle School, repairs to the Greenough Dam, or upgrades to the pipes at the school that are causing roof leaks. "Without a whole lot of adding up we could get to a $400-$500,000 override, and that's assuming our revenue assumptions bear up," he warned. The FinCom hopes that the current respectful discourse can be maintained throughout the long and difficult process, or it could be another tumultuous spring.
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito