The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 18, 2009

FinCom probes effects of potential 10% budget cuts

This fall, anticipating a severe and long-lived gap between the town’s income and expenses starting with the next fiscal year, the Finance Committee (FinCom) asked town departments for reports on what a 10% cut in their budgets would mean. At their November 30 and December 14 meetings they discussed and debated the prospect of such cuts with representatives of the Gleason Public Library and other, smaller town departments. Working in parallel, the Structural Financial Planning Committee is exploring structural changes to town government in hopes of achieving long-term reductions in town expenses (see “Town considers job reductions, sharing functions with Concord.”)

Much will change before FY11 budget reaches Town Meeting

The actual FY11 budget guideline, expected to be approved by FinCom on December 21, may differ from the 10% reduction being discussed. From January through March, the FinCom will hold hearings at which each department will present a FY11 budget that meets the guideline, along with additional requests for exceptions to the guideline. Also, in Feburary, more will be known about certain expenses and state aid. As hearings continue, FinCom will revise the guideline budget and consider possible override proposals to recommend that the Board of Selectmen place on the Town Meeting Warrant in the spring.

Departments protest 10% cuts

Town Hall reaction to proposed 10% cuts has been negative. In several departments, staff are already working well beyond the hours for which they are paid. As much of their work is mandated by statute, any further reductions in funding will exacerbate that situation, board members told FinCom repeatedly. Moreover, no relief can be expected from raising fees paid the town by users of these services (e.g. for health inspections, building permits), since they are already as high as or higher than those of nearby towns. In addition, the bulk of these funds is encumbered to pay specialized inspectors and consultants to advise lay board members on their decisions, and cannot be used to plug holes in operating budgets, FinCom heard.

Cuts in staff time

The Recreation Commission and Council on Aging opted to reduce maintenance (RecCom) and program expenses (COA), rather than cut staff hours. RecCom hopes a timer on a sprinkler system will cut electricity costs, and will also reduce maintenance for that system and other equipment. Kathy Mull, COA director, estimates that the COA staff regularly work 100 to 115 hours weekly compared to the 75 hours they are paid for. With this in mind, the COA will cut spending for program and office operations, hoping the Friends of the COA can cover some or all of these costs.

Gleason Library would do likewise, although staff hours will also be cut. To avoid more severe reductions in staff hours Library Director Angela Mollet and Trustees Chair Priscilla Stevens said the library would spend $17,200 less for “collections” (books, periodicals, digital). This would effectively reduce the library budget more, as it would mean loss of state aid contingent on maintaining a 20% level of spending for materials.

Cutting hours

Most of the other small departments, however, have such tight budgets they must cut staff hours, representatives maintained. To achieve a goal of $50,000 in cuts, the Library would also reduce nearly $27,000 worth of staff hours, a minimum of four hours weekly during the school year, ten hours weekly in summer. In addition, extra coverage on Carlisle School early release days would also be eliminated. The memo estimates that most of the library’s part-time staff would be affected, losing around half their scheduled hours. There would also be reduction in custodial services.

Town Clerk Charlene Hinton maintains that all the work of her department is “state or town-mandated,” and must be done “in a timely manner.” Thus, a 10% cut in Town Clerk hours with no reduction in demands would mean she would work the same hours but without compensation.

Board of Health (BOH) Chair Jeff Brem told FinCom that a 10% cut in the hours for the BOH agent and her assistant would mean no time on emergency preparedness or the Medical Reserve Corps, which recently conducted two free H1N1 vaccination clinics for Carlisle children and adults at risk of complications. Conferences and service to residents would also suffer, said Brem, who suggested that it was risky to skimp on health or other inspections.

Conservation Commission (ConsCom) Chair Peter Burn and Administrator Sylvia Willard and Planning Board member and former Chair David Freedman reported similarly. Conscom must cut staff hours since salary is the largest part of their budget, except for mowing conservation land. What will not get done are meeting minutes, and possibly an update to the Open Space and Recreation report, possibly less enforcement, which takes a great deal of time. Most likely, Willard said, is that she will work longer hours without pay.

The major problem for the Planning Board, Freedman told FinCom, is “we basically [must] respond to applications [as they] come in” which is “hard to quantify” or predict. If a particular statutory response or requirement is not completed within time limits set by state law, an application is considered approved.

The board’s workload has not fallen with construction activity. The Planning Board must respond to time-consuming requests for wireless facility permits and last year, in fact, the Planning Board reviewed and approved the largest development since Tall Pines, Freedman said. And as town moves toward “build-out” and fewer buildable lots are developed, each proposed project presents more difficult issues for all the boards, Burn and Freedman told FinCom. Currently, nothing Planning Board staff does is discretionary, he said. Not to update regulations is “not smart,” according to Freedman.

FinCom: Think “creatively”

FinCom members met with strong resistance as they encouraged the smaller departments to “cross-train,” to share staff or other functions, or to regionalize services with other towns. Staff from the treasurer/tax collector should be able to work with the assessors, they suggested, or land-use board staff share compliance tasks.

Such sharing across specialized disciplines would be difficult or impossible, FinCom heard over and over, from Finance Director Larry Barton and Hinton, Planning Board members Freedman and Lamere, ConsCom chair Burn, Board of Health (BOH) member Bill Risso, and Building Inspector John Luther. “It takes years” for someone to “ramp up” in these areas, Risso told FinCom.

Four different businesses

There are different statutory requirements for each board, Burn pointed out, with little overlap in the technical expertise required. “I’ve been on ConsCom ten years and I don’t know the town or the reg[ulation]s as well as Sylvia,” he said. “These are professionals here – without them the town would be lost,” Lamere told FinCom.

As in a corporation, board members should be delegating tasks to a “lower cost resource,” FinCom member Barbara Bjornson suggested. Yet “we’re not a corporation, we’re a government,” Lamere pointed out. Unlike a corporation, government boards have little discretion, and must respond to unpredictable and uncontrollable state mandates and developments, Freedman pointed out.

“It’s like having four different companies in four different businesses,” Luther explained to FinCom, and the specialized knowledge makes their tasks distinct. With what he has to learn to keep up in his field, “I don’t have time to learn about plants or viruses or septic systems” he said.

FinCom had also encouraged the Board of Health to consider regionalizing some services to other towns. The board now uses the town of Concord’s personnel for health inspections, and Brem has just contacted Westford for discussions. However, costs for Concord’s services have been quite high, he pointed out. The problem with regionalizing services, Brem said, is that “these things still have to be done,” and another town would have to add staff to do work for Carlisle. Thus, the work would still cost the town.

Raise fees?

FinCom had also suggested that these departments might raise fees paid by users or homeowners or developers for activities or permits. All but COA and ConsCom reported raising their charges within the past few years, and Willard assured FinCom that ConsCom will look into doing so. FinCom learned that RecCom charges are a bit higher than other towns, and that the fees now more or less cover the costs of activities. In the past RecCom has accepted “payments-in-kind” as compensation from other users of town fields. Barton suggested that the commission consider directing those funds to field maintenance instead.

BOH doubled their fees two years ago to recover some of their administration costs and are now “at the high end” or the highest of nearby towns, according to Brem. The Planning Board also raised fees several years ago; last year $19,000 went into the general fund (a source of revenue for the entire town), Freedman told FinCom.

Luther explained that payments for building and other permits and inspections, which he agreed could be raised, currently are split. Half the fees collected go into a revolving fund that is used to pay costs for inspectors, and half to the town. Whatever is left in the revolving fund at the end of the fiscal year rolls over to cover the next year’s expenses. Luther offered to study a possible split of 35-65% as well as raising building permit fees from $11 per $1,000.

How the fees are used

Only certain library fines and certain Planning Board fees go into the general fund entirely. FinCom had also suggested that the revolving accounts which are used to collect and spend these fees could be used to pay for some of the expenses now covered by property taxes.

The town already collects 18% of RecCom income, Barton told FinCom. This resulted from a deal several years ago that raised spending above the department’s baseline budget. The balance goes into a revolving account which covers expenses for programs and staff. A past surplus in this account has been eliminated by purchase of a RecCom van, he said.

A BOH revolving fund covers costs of reviews of septic plans and inspections and pays a small portion of costs for the administrative assistant. (The situation with ConsCom fees is similar.) After questioning from FinCom member David Model, Brem and Risso agreed to study rebating 10% of fees collected to the town, with the caveat that the board might retain the 10% if it seemed that fund would run out of money to pay its obligations.

Staffed just enough?

After hearing from RecCom, the COA, Finance, and the Town Clerk FinCom members expressed frustration with the responses to requests to consider how to accommodate reduced funding. Guarino summarized the dilemma for these departments, that “any meaningful [budget] cut is in personnel . . . in wages or salaries.”

According to what FinCom had heard, “every department is staffed just enough,” Guarino noted. But, “if you’ve been cutting down, maybe that’s true,” member Mike Bishop replied. Given a “collective will” the boards could “do it,” Model said.

None had data to back up their arguments, which FinCom needs, Verrill said. Then FinCom should define what data they want from these departments next year, Barton suggested. Member Barbara Bjornson said she wanted to know what percent of staff hours are devoted to “statutory” (i.e. required by state or town law), versus discretionary tasks. Yet “you are hearing them emphasize statutory” work, Model told her.

Verrill also suggested the FinCom should “squeeze” the departments’ revolving funds. But those funds are already encumbered for particular purposes, not discretionary, member Jerry Lerman told him. Guarino reminded them they had agreed at the beginning of the year that FinCom would not make such recommendations. FinCom “could summarily tell them to cut $20,500 [among] the four of them,” Verrill then suggested. “Or we could tell the [building inspector] to raise his fees and make the problem go away,” Model countered. ∆

© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito