Friday, February 1, 2008
Town departments asked to trim budgets for FY09
In a tight fiscal year the Finance Committee has asked town departments for no increase in next year's budget over the current year. On Monday night the Conservation Commission, Board of Health and Planning Board gave their budget proposals to FinCom, but not without concerns.
With careful scrutiny, the Conservation Commission and Board of Health were able to meet the zero guideline by reducing some accounts and services. The Planning Board, however, with its role in overseeing new subdivisions and evaluating wireless services in town, is reluctant to give up funds it says it needs to do its job.
For the last several years, ConsCom has tapped fees, which it collects from wetland filings and as established by local bylaws, to cover some wage costs. In the next fiscal year, ConsCom will transfer funds from two revolving fund fee accounts to its operating budget to pay for wages. This will reduce the amount of money the town must spend on the ConsCom budget this year.
ConsCom member Tom Schultz said both ConsCom and the state Department of Environmental Protection raised fees in the last few years, adding more cash in the fee accounts to help offset annual budget increases, mainly for wage increases.
Schultz explained actual department costs are projected at $68,470 in FY09 but with a $14,000 transfer from the revolving fee accounts, ConsCom is able to request less than FinCom's guideline. FinCom's guideline budget for ConsCom is $60,125, but the department actually requested less: $53,859. He pointed out that for the last five years ConsCom has transferred funds this way, effectively reducing its own budget appropriation from the town each year. With hard financial times this year, the department made its largest transfer to date.
Though building activity is down, ConsCom is dealing with more complex cases on marginal land as buildable lots become less available. The lots require more site visits, more time and more work by the department. ConsCom Administrator Sylvia Willard is a full-time employee and Mary Hopkins works as a part-time administrative assistant.
Board of Health
The Board of Health (BOH) cut its operating budget to cover wage increases for department employees. Board of Health Agent Linda Fantasia is full-time and an administrator works part-time.
Board member Bill Risso pointed out the operating budget [non-salary funds] for the BOH has decreased over the last four years from $8,377 in FY06 to just $3,172 for the upcoming FY09. The budgets for engineering services and public education will be reduced in the FY09 budget. In a letter the BOH told the FinCom it "is attempting to meet the challenge of providing for a healthy community with limited resources." However, it predicted the small operating budget would not cover all expenses "even with the strictest economies."
The Greystone Crossing development off Cross Street has 23 filings for septic systems before the BOH. The department also expects to review individual septic system plans for the 35-lot Hanover Hill development off Westford Street this year. Though the Coventry Woods development off Concord Street has not progressed to the septic design stage, the board anticipates the review, when it occurs, will be "complicated and expensive." The department also reviews plans for existing home additions and expansions to see if septic system requirements are changed.
Transfer Station sticker fees fund hazardous waste collection, which last year cost $5,500. Collection is now done once a year in the spring, down from two collections a year. The BOH increased permit and license fees in December with fees going to the town's General Fund.
Over the last several years, Fantasia applied for and received several state and federal grants earmarked for public health, including emergency preparedness and pandemic flu and disease grants, with grant funds used for these purposes.
The health department sponsored public service events in the last year including a flu clinic, public health fair, new baby event, and a rabies clinic, which were run by board members and staff. The flu clinic is partly covered by the state Medicare program.
At issue for the Planning Board is the Planning and Professional line item used for planning initiatives, specifically to pay for outside consultants when needed. This year the board holds approximately $20,000 in the fund for professional consultant fees as they arise. The board has spent $7,000 from the account so far this fiscal year for a technical consultant to work on the wireless project review.
At the end of each fiscal year, any money left in the Planning and Professional account is automatically returned to the town's General Fund. With reduced income from new housing growth this year, FinCom asked the Planning Board to reduce this budget line item to $5,000. The board has requested $15,000 for FY09.
Town Treasurer Larry Barton recommended the Planning Board consider requesting planning funds through a Town Meeting Warrant Article, explaining the logic from an accounting perspective. "Much of what the Planning Board does transcends fiscal years. Budget appropriations [such as the Planning and Professional item] are fiscal-year related." With a Town Meeting vote, funds can be used over many years, Barton explained.
Associate board member David Freedman responded, saying one of the mandated functions of the board is to do planning. With the reduction in the planning budget requested by the town he questioned, "Does the Planning Board have the funds it needs to do planning?"
According to a board memo, since 2003 funds in this account were used mainly for wireless consultants' fees for the Town Wireless Study, Wireless Bylaw, Wireless Regulations, and a Wireless request for proposal (RFP). Geographic information system (GIS) development and Inclusionary Zoning are also listed under the planning line item.
The board has also worked extensively on the town's affordable housing plan. Currently the Planning Board is revising the wireless bylaws and is considering a request for proposals for wireless providers to provide service on town-owned land, a move that could bring the town revenue. The board must also revise town rules and regulations to reflect changes in new state Department of Environmental Protection storm water management guidelines expected in the next month.
A year ago the board more than doubled the fees it charges for special permits and subdivisions, bringing an increase in revenue for the town with all fees going directly to the General Fund.
FinCom Chair David Model, after polling other members, said there would have to be further discussion of the Planning Board budget at a later meeting.
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