Friday, April 28, 2006
FinCom hears feedback on Warrant Articles
In what turned out to be a trial run for what they may face at Town Meeting, the Finance Committee (FinCom) answered pointed questions from several of about 15 attendees to their April 24 public forum on the Town Warrant. Surprised Chair Thornton Ash apologized that he hadn't prepared a formal presentation, explaining, "This is the first time anybody's shown up" to a FinCom Warrant forum.
Head count increases explained
Kerry Kissinger of Elizabeth Ridge Road had several questions about the budget and override. He wondered about existing head count for town employees, a number the FinCom did not have on hand, and also about increases. Ash noted the FinCom is recommending two additional town employees, one at the DPW and one an assistant administrator to be a resource for affordable housing. A few additional hours will also be added to existing Town Hall staff where critical. Ash explained that the DPW employee is a restoration and is therefore included in the budget, while the housing coordinator/assistant will be voted on at Town Meeting (Article 8). Noting, "It's easy to hire, tough to fire," Kissinger endorsed the FinCom recommendation that the housing coordinator be a contract employee, "That sounds very prudent."
What if override fails?
Taking another tack at budget enlightenment, Kissinger wondered, "If voters don't approve the override, what don't we have?" The FinCom is recommending an override of $150,766 without which the Carlisle School will have to cut its budget by $75,000 and Concord-Carlisle High School will have a $75,766 shortfall. On Monday, Concord approved an amount for the high school at Town Meeting consistent with the Carlisle override budget. Under the agreement for the regional school, the two towns must approve matching budget levels.
Ash noted the FinCom approach is not to target specific line items but to review the entire budget. "We've seen the program, reviewed the numbers of teachers, and the capital component." Barbara Bjornson added that given a certain dollar amount, "the School Committee is the board that oversees the budget. That's their charter."
David Trask explained that the schools are reluctant to designate program cuts due to issues of teacher morale. "In the past we've found that if an override does fail they regroup." Often the maintenance budget gets cut, a decision that may not save money in the long term, but one that avoids teacher layoffs. Trask advised, "Voters on an override should decide based on their gut feel if a budget is tight enough or if it could be tighter and (the school) still survive as a good school system." He added, "Our view is the budget is tight, but not too tight."
David Murphree of River Road observed a big part of the school budgets seems to be decided in contract negotiations "where there's not massive public participation." Ash said that past FinCom efforts to affect teacher salary negotiations have failed, and Sue Wolfe emphasized the need to "change the dynamic at the level of the School Committee" for more information and influence.
Kissinger iterated that he is "a real strong supporter" of the schools, adding, "I think we get a big bang for the buck." But he said more information is needed to make a decision on the override. Though the budget is largely non-discretionary, he asked the FinCom to refine their presentation at Town Meeting. "What is the size of the discretionary portion? Put the $150,000 in perspective."
Why schools on override?
David Reed wondered why the schools were put on the override, noting if the override fails, "it makes us look like ogres." Dave Model said the FinCom had considered that "the schools are two-thirds of the budget" with "growth above 2 1/2 %" and a school population "that's not growing that much, but costs are up." Barbara Bjornson observed the committee had had an extensive discussion and "felt an obligation to the town" to focus on the growth in education funding. "Education needs attention."
Ash noted fairness had been considered in weighing needs at the schools and at the Gleason Library, Council on Aging, and DPW, "all of which made persuasive cases for increasing services." Finally, John Nock pointed out that the "difference of opinion in town" on the override was reflected in "an honest difference of opinion" on the FinCom, where the decision to put the schools on the override was not unanimous.
Concern for a future of growing overrides
Phil Conti of East Riding Drive said that several things had gone in Carlisle's favor this year, including the Northeast Solid Waste Compact payment, high Free Cash, a favorable student ratio at CCHS, and a small percentage increase at Minuteman High School. "My impression is that the pendulum will swing in the other direction . . . It looks like we're facing ever-increasing overrides in the next few years."
Ash agreed there is risk, and pointed out that a higher student ratio could have cost the town as much as $400,000. The recent news that state aid may not increase was "a little bit of an eye-opener" regarding the funding situation going forward. On the other hand, debt service is declining, and a new high school is probably "out several years." Still, "several things are giving us pause for thought."
John Nock noted that state law Prop. 2 1/2 sets the levy (the amount the town can collect in taxes without an override) at a level slightly under inflation which averages 3%. As a result, overrides are almost inevitable. "It's a good law because it makes us look at the budget every year to see if there's something we can cut." Nock advised expecting overrides each year, "but I wouldn't say ever-increasing."
But Sue Wolfe pointed to recent real estate growth and one time revenues and noted, "Unfortunately we're in an override position even with those two factors. I'd like to see us manage to the revenue we have." The FinCom will be challenged to "be more aggressive in knowing where we spend money and what we get for our dollars."
Managing the CPA $200K
Nancy Pierce of Westford Street questioned the proposed $200,000 transfer to the developer of Coventry Woods of CPA funds (Article 26). The transfer would fulfill an agreement for the developer to increase the number of affordable units from 10 to 12. Carlisle must add 12 units next year in order to extend a moratorium from state law 40B, which allows a developer to bypass local zoning in towns with inadequate affordable housing. "What are we going to get for $200,000?" asked Pierce. "How will it be paid, and when? What if the development doesn't go forward?"
Selectman Doug Stevenson noted the Zoning Board (ZBA) will approve only the specific project described in the memorandum of understanding between the town, the developer, and the abutters. Conformance will be required to keep ZBA approval, with some of the affordable units completed at designated stages. In addition, an agreement that would allow Carlisle to recoup at least some of its money has been reached, under which the developer would return 50% of the amount over an average selling price of $670,000 per unit to the town. Regarding the developer's motivation, Stevenson noted, "His interest isn't in spending money on lawyers. It's in spending money to build units."
Controversy on web site
An impassioned Dave Reed said he represented "volunteers begging the town" to let them build a web site, thus saving Carlisle $6,000. He claimed the Selectmen had rebuffed their offer, saying "we have no right to tell them how to spend that money." McKenzie explained the funds for a web site had been allocated in a Warrant five years ago, but had waited for server upgrades and other work to be completed. A $3,000 contract has recently been issued to a company providing a template for town web sites. "It allows for a very professional web site," she said.
Ash noted that a committee formed to organize volunteer information technology (IT) resources "went nowhere," and McKenzie said a Mosquito article asking for IT volunteers "really did not get a response." Bjornson raised the issue that "it's not just building, but service on-going." Reed responded that he is a willing volunteer and "I'll beg right now" to do the work. He added, "I build web sites" and said there are "at least two professionals" willing to dedicate themselves to the project. "I'm shocked to find out it's water under the bridge."
Ash suggested it may be possible to revisit using volunteers for some part of the project. But Cindy Nock spoke up for town workers who have wanted a professional web site for some time. "I'm glad to see it coming to fruition, and would hate for anything to delay it."
Make our jobs easier
Noting the large number of interested participants, Conti suggested that more people should attend FinCom meetings throughout the year to learn the process and see that "nothing is being hidden." Pierce also suggested checking school budget reports that are available on-line.
Taking up the call for more public participation, Ash observed the FinCom meetings are usually pretty lonely, "This is the biggest crowd in three years." "Make that six years," interjected Nock, who has been on the committee longer. Ash continued, "We make so many judgment calls and could use more feedback when we do the detailed hearings [on various town budgets]. More input and feedback would make our job easier."
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