Friday, March 4, 2005
FinCom finds some money, haggles over spending priorities
What's more important, the school or the DPW? More hours for the library or more hours for the Town Clerk? Prioritization was the challenge as the Finance Committee met on February 14 and February 28 to look at the $475,000 in FY06 requests submitted by various departments over and above their guideline budgets. Armed with additional information that increased FY06 revenue projections and a you-can't-please-all-people-all-the-time philosophy, the FinCom set out to determine how to spend the extra money.
According to Massachusetts law, the FinCom must recommend a budget consistent with a no more than 2.5% increase in property taxes. It is then up to the Board of Selectmen to decide if items not included in this "levy limit" budget should be offered as overrides to voters at Town Meeting.
Higher FY06 revenue projections
With the state's certification of free cash (leftover town money) and the issuance of the preliminary governor's budget, the FinCom on February 14 decided to look at its earlier revenue projections and make adjustments. Free cash has now been certified at $643,000. With $142,000 set aside for the HVAC system at Town Hall, and $45,000 already allocated to the budget, the committee decided to transfer another $200,000 to the FY06 operating budget. State aid increases and reduced assessments added another $60,000.
Finance Director Larry Barton reported that new real estate growth is likely to be higher than the $17.5 million originally forecast. He said Town Assessor John Speidel "wouldn't be surprised if new growth breaks $20 million, but he hesitates to go out on a limb, and I don't blame him." Each $1 million in new real estate growth adds $12,600 in tax revenue to the levy limit. Another possible revenue source is the $143,000 Carlisle is due to receive in October from NESWC, the waste handling consortium to which the town belongs, as a rebate of grant and cogeneration fees when the contract ends. It is unclear whether the town can apply those funds against FY06 budgets, so the FinCom chose to ignore them for the time being.
What's important? - Round 1
With an additional $300,000 to $500,000 to play with, the FinCom then turned to grappling with spending priorities. Chair Dave Trask had done an initial assignment of priorities one through three, and other members were quick to disagree. Sue Wolfe pointed to a priority one item of $26,229 to expand hours for the town clerk, saying, "I wouldn't put it in the category of 'must have' or 'must do.'" Thornton Ashe wondered what framework the FinCom should be using for assessing a request like this. "Is this a year we expand service or do we stick with the 'little town' model?" He noted a recent tour of Carlisle School classrooms had convinced him there may be priorities higher than having the Town Clerk available until 3 p.m. (See article on page 1.)
Jim Fitzsimmons also addressed the philosophy issue, "How do we decide DPW versus the school?" The DPW had requested two additional workers for $70,636. A Carlisle School request for additional sixth grade teachers to implement a "6/5" plan for reducing class size to nineteen would be $48,460 in addition to $48,905 for a "5/5" plan reducing class size to twenty three. Fitzsimmons felt "A better case was made by the school" as he was unclear what advantage the DPW workers would bring. Wolfe wished for quantifiable results such as "miles of road cleared per worker" or "people served by town clerk per hour." "Otherwise, how do we prioritize? We need more justification."
Trask said emphatically, "It's not up to the FinCom to decide how many hours the Town Clerk is needed . . . I look to someone else to make that decision and we'll look for the dollars." To get away from decisions based on opinion, members decided to go back over the list and assign "priority ones" only to items which represent existing or obligatory services. Under this definition, funding the Concord-Carlisle High School to the Concord FinCom level ($104,072) and the Minuteman High School request ($46,465) assumed priority one ("What choice do we have?" asked Fitzsimmons). Contractual obligations such as police hours and sick time, and fire stipends were also priority one, but expansion of Town Clerk hours was assigned priority two, as was the addition of DPW workers. The Carlisle School's "5/5" plan was assigned priority one with the "6/5" plan priority two, though this was upgraded at the subsequent meeting.
What's important? - Round 2
On February 28 the FinCom resumed the discussion. Having centered on $300,000 as a reasonable estimate of how much could be added to the budget, the FinCom looked to bring $475,000 in requests down to that number. By happy coincidence, at the end of the discussion, all priority one items fit under the $300,000 umbrella, totaling $297,000. Priority two items will be presented to the Selectmen for override consideration.
Ray Wilkes suggested changing the normal way of structuring budgets in which town hall requests are covered under the levy limit and "we let the school hang out there" in an override. "I'd like to reverse that and have the town tell us how important those services (such as Town Clerk hours and additions to the DPW) are."
Task began by recommending $22,200 in items for priority three, including police court hearings, staff meetings, and education, and fire inspections. Financial software training and a childhood specialist to do story hours for the library were also assigned priority three.
Most maintenance items were moved into priority one, including $4,300 of a $8,600 request from the Gleason Library. The other half of the $8,600 supported a request for Sunday hours. This amount and the staffing for Sunday hours of $6,500 were assigned priority two. Police cell watch of $9,500, which would allow additional staffing when a prisoner was being held, and fuel for added patrols of $2,583 were also priority two.
Priority assignment of the Carlisle School sixth-grade reorganization was complicated by a report that the "5/5" option had been taken off the table, and the "6/5" costing $97,974 was being presented as the only feasible alternative. Fitzsimmons argued the plan should be considered level service because "maintaining the quality of the school system is a priority [and] the people in the know say this is critical to get their job done." Wilkes argued for the program as necessary to deal with special education issues and with upcoming larger classes. Ash argued for "fairness to all citizens" and for attending to the school building which is "in pretty tough shape, to say the least." The FinCom elevated the plan to priority one, but balanced that by assigning $21,000 for wastewater treatment and $20,000 for school tech support to priority twos.
Also difficult was assignment of $24,873 for extra Town Clerk hours. Dave Trask noted that Town Hall is open nine to three but "the person ninety percent of the people go to is only there nine to twelve. It doesn't make any sense." Barbara Bjornsen wondered if the town was "irresponsible" not to pay for hours that are currently being worked. But Ray Wilkes represented the other end of the range of opinion, admitting this was a low priority item to him. But, he added, "others may care" and this is a reason to present .the option to Town Meeting. It was kept at priority two.
Trask believed the two DPW workers costing $70,636 had been promised to the department. There was some discussion of making one priority one, but the idea died as Fitzsimmons wondered how important roadside mowing and tree-trimming really is to the town. Both workers were assigned priority two.
Planning Board request
The Planning Board was invited in to defend $10,865 for planning. Trask expressed frustration that the request was too vague, "Your case would be much stronger if you put a specific proposal in front of us." David Freedman responded that flexibility was needed so the board "can be responsive to what the town wants to have happen." Though still somewhat fuzzy as to what they were voting for, the FinCom elevated the plan from priority three to priority one. Said Wilkes, "An affordable housing plan is critical to this town's character. We have to get this right."
The FinCom decided to recommend the following be covered under the levy limit: the Carlisle middle school 6/5 staffing plan, the Concord-Carlisle High School override budget, the assessment budget for Minuteman Regional High School, and various contract, maintenance, and planning costs. Items to be considered for an override include extended hours for the town clerk, additional DPW workers, secretarial support for the fire department, cell watch and police patrols, Sunday hours at the library, and Carlisle School technical support and wastewater treatment operating funds.
Selectmen Weigh in - Round 3
At a meeting on Tuesday the Selectmen requested that the FinCom include the additional hours for the Town Clerk, one DPW employee, and the wastewater treatment operation as priority one items. Whether an extra $82,000 can be found to cover these has yet to be determined.
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