Friday, May 2, 2003
Townspeople examine budget, look to financial future
On Monday April 28, the FinCom held the annual budget hearing attended by several townspeople. Questions centered on the process for budgeting the high school and the "why?" of Warrant Articles for pathways and tennis courts. In addition, participants expressed interest in understanding the tools the FinCom can use for managing the town's financial future.
Chair Larry Barton opened by praising town departments for adhering to strict FinCom guidelines which held Town Hall to a 1.5% increase and the Carlisle Public School to a 2.6% increase (raised slightly to provide critical needs). As far as the Concord Carlisle High School (CCHS) budget, the strategy, according to Barton, was to "try to match what Concord was doing." Under the regional agreement, the two towns must fund the high school at the same level according to a formula based on student population. Passing mismatched funding levels can result in additional town meetings and elections to achieve resolution. Last year the two towns' initial votes did not agree, and the budget process was prolonged.
Matching CCHS override levels
Town Moderator Sarah Brophy asked whether Carlisle's override level matches Concord's. There is one override on the Carlisle Warrant (Article 5) of $189,000 for the CCHS. As Concord's Town Meeting was in progress at the time of the meeting, no one knew what level Concord would agree on (see article page 1). Concord offered three levels of override for the high school. Carlisle's override matched the second level, the one recommended by the Concord FinCom. Barton noted that if no high school override were to pass in either town, Concord and Carlisle's budgets for CCHS will match.
Concord's decision to offer several override levels increased the probability of a mismatch. In case of a discrepancy, Barton noted, the regional agreement allows the Concord Carlisle Regional School Committee (CCRSC) to accept the higher level and ask the other town to come up to it. As an alternative, the school committee could choose the lower level and the town that passed the bigger override would have a Special Town Meeting to reduce the budget.
Barton had earlier explained that Carlisle "will undoubtedly require a Special Town Meeting" anyway to deal with expected changes to local aid after the state legislature gets through amending the Governor's proposed budget. The legislature recently put forward numbers different from the Governor's, raising the likelihood that state aid will be higher than expected. Given the uncertainty, the FinCom is proceeding with the more conservative numbers.
Does CCHS need the override?
Ralph Anderson asked several pointed questions about the high school budget. He wondered about the state reimbursement for METCO, which Barton said was $120,000 or about $1400 per METCO student versus a CCHS average cost of $13,000 per student. Anderson also asked what the high school budget includes as an increase in the teacher's contract, still being negotiated. Lisa Jensen-Fellows said, "They didn't reveal that to us, though we asked several ways." She guessed the amount might be 2 to 3%. Barton expressed frustration with the closed nature of the negotiations, and noted the FinCom has pressured the CCRSC for changes in the contract, particularly in the area of work rules. "Let's get a bit more productivity out of the system," he added.
Noting uncertainty in the teachers' contract and state aid, and the "uncooperative" nature of the school committee, Anderson asked, "How can you recommend an override now?" Several FinCom members nodded agreement as John Nock countered, "I don't think anyone on this committee would characterize the school committee as uncooperative." Added Barton, "Carlisle has thirteen more students at the high school this year than last. It's counter-intuitive to think they can educate more children for less money." He suggested the school committee's devotion to the search for a new superintendent has perhaps impacted their ability to respond to questions on the budget.
Pathways draw fire
Several questions concerned Article 17 to authorize borrowing for footpaths in the town center. In response to a question from Jayne Prats of River Road, Barton explained the intent of the Warrant is to allow the Selectmen to borrow as needed up to $150,000 over five years to proceed with the footpath plan. It is possible the $30,000 per year could be supplemented by other sources such as Community Preservation Act or Stabilization Funds.
Ralph Anderson objected to the lack of an engineering estimate, noting "For $150,000 we don't know what we're going to get." Another participant questioned whether any analysis had been done of usage, "I would love to see them [footpaths], but who's going to use them?" FinCom and Bike and Pedestrian Safety member Deb Belanger noted the Board of Selectmen will "oversee each segment of the project in granular detail" and referred anyone with questions to email@example.com, the committee's website.
Future outlook, financial tools
Prats questioned the future tax impact of upcoming school projects. Barton responded that the $26 million to be proposed for Carlisle Public School expansion would add 6% to the tax rate if there is no state reimbursement. The wastewater treatment facility at the school will cost Carlisle $600,000, as 60% of the $1.5 million cost will be reimbursed. The CCHS plan is to spend an eventual $45 million, starting with a Phase 1 of $18 million. Barton noted that a challenge for the town will be managing debt service "to try to keep it level" by spacing out projects.
Another question concerned the use of the Stabilization Fund, which currently contains $850,000, and of Free Cash which stands at $180,000. The availability of over $1 million in these two accounts is a source of Carlisle's very favorable bond rating. Barton noted the need to avoid cash transfers for operating expenses as "we set the bar higher for the following year by increasing spending with no corresponding increase in revenue. Tony Allison also noted that Community Preservation Act funds are now over $500,000, and Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie added that that fund will pass $1 million before the end of this year. This fund is dedicated to projects to enhance historic preservation, conservation, and affordable housing. Currently the town is not allowed to borrow against these funds, but it is hoped the state will amend this rule.
Other questions concerned insurance increases of 14%, which Barton called "attractive compared to industry," the intent of Articles 19 and 20 to broaden an existing plan to provide tax exemptions for low-income seniors, and the need for Article 10, which allows the town to cover a reserve fund deficit due to excessive snow and ice ($70,000 of the deficit) and legal fees ($20,000 of the deficit) by tapping two accounts that were over-budgeted. In response to a question about Article 16 for tennis courts it was explained that the town will borrow up to $100,000 to be repaid out of RecCom fees.
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