Friday, January 22, 2010
Town cost reduction plan takes shape
Key services to be preserved, CPA program questioned
The Structural Financial Planning Committee (SFP) has vetted a number of suggestions for raising town revenues or reducing costs, to prepare for anticipated future school projects. As deadlines approach for finalizing recommendations for the FY11 budget year, the outlines of a reduction plan are taking shape, but details of implementation will require further study.
On January 14, Selectman Tim Hult presented a summary of the ten likeliest sources of revenues/reductions. As opinions were sought around the table, raising revenue from Advanced Life Support (ALS) service, transportation funds and building fee increases were unanimously supported. Also recommended were a look at reducing Town Hall staff hours and exploring the implications of combining some Recreation and Board of Health services with Concord. However, while reductions in police and DPW staffing would be easy ways to save in the short term, the committee concluded that long term savings are not possible in these areas without reductions in safety and service.
Hult presented his assessment of the principles to be considered:
• Maximize opportunities presented by fees, grants and subsidies
• Preserve critical key services
• Explore regionalization
• Leverage personnel and volunteers
• Carefully target capital resources
He defined key services as fire, police, library, schools and DPW, saying, “These things are core in terms of citizens’ expectations of government.” Later discussion concerned whether the COA or affordable housing should be included, with Hult noting an aging population means the COA is “becoming core.” John Ballantine, who is not on the committee, but was present as a consultant, said surveys show that maintaining the rural atmosphere is also important to citizens.
coordination to be pursued
Finance Committee member Dave Model said he is convinced the town needs to explore more regionalization opportunities. “People want the ndependence of Carlisle . . . but where on the continuum (from complete independence to complete absorption) does it make sense to be?” He said that exploring union of BOH and RecCom functions with Concord should be only a beginning, “I wouldn’t rule out administration at Town Hall.” Treasurer Larry Barton noted Carlisle has unique aspects and regulations that would make merging some functions with another town difficult. Town Administrator Tim Goddard reported that Concord officials are receptive but want a timely decision from Carlisle; “If we’re going to do something let’s do it.”
Selectman John Williams wanted to examine closing Town Hall one or two days a month, saving from $35,000 to $70,000 per year. David Freedman noted each department sets its own schedules and suggested Goddard take a closer look at Town Hall hours and duties with an eye toward better coordination and identification of where savings might be possible. Goddard, who has worked in Carlisle for a few months, agreed, saying “I need to get my arms around it. It does seem to be kind of a crazy quilt, and I want to bring some consistency to that.”
Goddard pointed to a proposed downsizing of the Administrative Coordinator position and suggested cutting hours or adding functionality to the position. Although the idea of combining with the COA director duties had not proved operable, perhaps some functions currently performed by the COA such as fuel assistance or human services could be transferred. Also, the position could be paid out of CPA funds, of which $300,000 is available. “Other towns have done it,” he noted. Williams also defended keeping the position, perhaps at reduced hours, because “housing issues are important.” Goddard will look at this and other Town Hall jobs and make a recommendation regarding realigning duties and/or scaling back hours.
Police coverage valued
A key goal set by the committee was preserving all police shifts so that coverage is constant. Hult said he had conferred at length with Police Chief Sullivan about a staff reduction and “the schedule doesn’t work even if we keep a flex officer.” Barton agreed, “I have become convinced that [a reduction] is not workable at this time. It just doesn’t make sense to end up paying overtime.”
Goddard said another proposal to limit police details in order to save $10,000 was better dealt with as part of the collective bargaining agreement; “It’s a complicated issue with possible unintended consequences.” There was also general agreement that the DPW staff could not be cut without compromising service. “The DPW does more than most people realize,” said Goddard.
Consensus was easy on proposals to raise revenues. Increasing the building fee by $3 per $1,000 could raise $60,000. Barton noted that town-provided ALS services are “a slam dunk to raise $25,000 to $50,000 per year.” Goddard said a meeting has been scheduled with transportation authorities to pursue a grant for regional transportation funds. He suggested that higher fees for the Transfer Station should be considered; “It’s $250,000 to operate and this would be a reminder to people this is a cost.”
Change of heart on CPA funding?
A proposal to rescind the Community Preservation Act (CPA) tax surcharge of 2%, in place since approved at Town Meeting in 2002, exposed controversy over affordable housing goals. Barton noted that roughly $500,000 is raised each year through the surcharge, including the state match of about 30%. “Where else can you get an automatic 20% to 30% on your money?” Williams asked. But Hult wondered if building up funds restricted to housing, historic preservation, open space and recreation is really a priority. “The schools are the ultimate community preservation,” he said.
Hult continued, “It’s not like we have a large population that requires public housing.” Freedman agreed, “If not for 40B, we wouldn’t be doing it.” He added, “Benfield shows it’s so hard to do. If we can’t produce enough housing to keep 40B at bay, why waste our time? We don’t have the money to put toward another Benfield.” But Williams thought a feasible housing plan is possible and should be considered before a recommendation is made on the CPA surcharge.
Several committee members voiced support for reducing or rescinding the surcharge at the point where taxes rise as debt for the Carlisle School project begins to be paid.
Three factors raise costs
Hult said that while the committee works to reduce the cost curve trajectory, “there are three things bending the curve the other way.” Those are special education, energy and benefits. He recommended task forces to look at managing each of these. It was agreed that a joint study would be conducted with Concord regarding coordinating approaches for special education. An Energy Committee is already at work and is expected to make recommendations soon. In addition, a group may be formed to examine healthcare and pension obligations. As Model sought to understand where $6 million in retirement obligations originated, Hult responded, “We need to have more discussion.”
Model said the FinCom’s recommendation that $150,000 of the FY11 budget be put on an override for the high school was considered “a pathway to next year’s budget” because it is not just a one-year increase, but raises the tax levy into the future. Barton noted that overrides have been “frequent but modest,” and as a result, “People understand and get comfortable with them. A little at a time makes it easier to accomplish” a budget increase, as opposed to a sudden jump. But Ballantine predicted that with an aging population and flat retirement income, “We won’t pass overrides. We’ll reach a real point where people say no.” ∆
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