Friday, December 13, 2002
FinCom re-evaluates FY04 guideline, with few changes
The Carlisle Finance Committee met on December 3 to finalize their guideline for the fiscal year 2004 (FY04) town budget, recognizing that given a number of uncertainties, revisions to this "final" guideline budget are highly likely. Further reductions in state aid and a slow-down in real estate growth may necessitate additional cuts. In addition, the impact of the tight budget on individual town departments has not yet been assessed, a process which may uncover needs that can't easily be postponed. This may yet require a re-allocation of resources or a recommendation for an override of the Proposition 2-1/2 levy limit.
At a previous meeting the FinCom had agreed to allocate a 2.6% increase to the Carlisle School, a 1.5% increase to town departments, and no increase to Minuteman Regional High School. These limited or non-existent increases, particularly painful to a town that continues to grow, arose from an assumption of a no-override budget. The guideline also assumed an assessment for Concord-Carlisle High School (CCHS) which corresponds to the Concord FinCom's no-override guideline, an assessment which would lower Carlisle's share of the high school budget by 1.71%. If an override passes in Concord, Carlisle's assessment to meet that level could be substantially larger.
Gains and losses
Chair Larry Barton noted that several new pieces of information had been received, suggesting changes to the guideline might be in order. On the positive side, the Carlisle FY04 assessment for the Middlesex Retirement Fund would be $64,292 less than the town had expected, freeing up that amount of money for other purposes. On the other hand, Barton had received warnings from several sources that state aid to education (Chapter 70) could be reduced by as much as 10%, an eventuality not provided for in the preliminary budget. A 10% reduction equals about $79,000.
Additional information had also come in on new real-estate growth. According to Barton, assessor John Speidel reported that a slow-down in new construction was making it less likely the town would reach the $30 million in new growth he had previously predicted. On the other hand, the reassessment process being undertaken this year has turned up a number of under-assessed properties with unreported additions or refinished rooms, and these increases in assessments may cancel out the loss from new construction.
Departments start to weigh in
Although departments have not yet met with the FinCom to respond to their guidelines, a letter received from Minuteman superintendent Ron Fitzgerald may be a harbinger of the difficulties to come. Fitzgerald responded to the $87,297 level budget suggested by the guideline by calling on Carlisle to honor its agreement to the vocational/technical school. He noted that Carlisle's enrollment in October 2002 has increased by one regular and four "reduced cost" pupils over the previous year. In total, "[Carlisle's] enrollment and SPED increases would lead to an assessment between $127,674 and $133,797 or 46.25 % to 53.3% higher than the $87,297 you listed." FinCom member David Trask responded, "That's a big number. We should question that." But he then noted, "Ron is a very sharp guy, and he's seldom wrong [in his assessments]." The committee agreed to invite Fitzgerald to explain his numbers before considering any change to the guideline.
Police contract a possible budget breaker
The police contract is another area of concern, requiring a $70,000 increase over last year. This amount, if accepted, would allow no increase for any other town department. According to town administrator Madonna McKenzie, the $70,000 includes not only raises, but time and a half for coverage of sick days. Officers receive thirteen sick days per year. Questions arose as to how much latitude the police chief has to reduce this cost, either by choosing not to cover the absence or by bringing in lower-paid auxiliaries. Responded McKenzie, "This police chief . . . will not leave the town in a situation where we're not appropriately covered." She also noted that past cuts have led to situations where the town lost money because officers were not available to go to court to defend disputed traffic tickets.
Member Deb Belanger asked, "Should public safety be treated as just as important as every other function in this town?" to which Barton replied, "Just because it's a contract doesn't give it any more credibility." Member Lisa Jensen-Fellows' suggestion to keep the police budget as is until Chief Galvin visits the FinCom in January was adopted.
New guideline emerges
Jensen-Fellows also suggested putting the $64,000 from the retirement fund reduction into the reserve fund. Tony Allison responded, "I don't like that. It looks like there's an extra $60K in the budget." Simon Platt agreed that this might encourage departments to target the extra money. Barton suggested another course, to reduce the anticipated state aid to education by $64,000, a decrease of 8.17%. "Given what we've heard, we probably should be shaving that," he added, "though 8.17% seems a bit aggressive to me."
Trask responded, "The state is going to have a very tough time. I think it would be prudent to cut by 10%." Platt said a drastic cut in Chapter 70 would be extremely unpopular, causing "blood in the streets." He felt the state is more likely to approve a higher amount, but defer releasing cash, requiring towns to borrow. At the current interest rate (1.4 %), this would be a less painful course for all concerned.
A vote was taken, and the guideline budget was reduced by $64,292 to $18,368,581, with an 8.17% reduction for Chapter 70 income. If Chapter 70 isn't cut as drastically as expected, Allison noted, "I'd rather be in the position of calling the school and saying we have more." Member John Nock added, "The Minuteman [assessment] is probably real. We could end up applying some to that." No changes were made to departmental guidelines for the time being.
FinCom responds to high school building plan
On a side note, the FinCom responded cautiously to a request by Mike Fitzgerald, vice-chair of the Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee, to evaluate what the average tax bill increase would be in Carlisle if the entire $45M plan for the high school were approved. Noting that more information was needed on cash flow, Platt then pointed to the need for an analysis of operating costs as well as "bricks and mortar," adding, "To give one without the other would be grossly misleading." He then suggested that given simple assumptions, the analysis could be done by Fitzgerald, and questioned whether the FinCom wanted to "plant a flag" they might later have to defend.
Since a preliminary guess indicates that the average tax bill will increase by $600 if the entire plan goes through, Jensen-Fellows noted, "I think it's good that they're thinking in those terms. . .$45 million falls flat on its face on its own weight." Responded Belanger, "There's no doubt the high school needs serious work. For the project they were asked to do [the high school space utilization committee] did a nice job. Too bad we can't afford it."
The FinCom will meet with the regional school committee on Wednesday, December 18 for a preliminary discussion of the FY04 operating budget as well as the capital improvement plans.
McKenzie noted that $471,000 in real estate taxes is overdue at this time. She pointed out that the 14% interest charge on unpaid taxes, required by the state, is a significant incentive to paying on time. She added, "This gives you a pulse on what's happening in the community. There are a number of households having difficulty."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito