The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 12, 2010

Selectmen hear recommendations for trimming town government

The Special Committee for Structural Financial Planning (SFP) has met over the past months to evaluate a number of ideas for permanently reducing the size of town government. On Tuesday, February 9, SFP Chair Tim Hult reported to the Board of Selectmen (BOS), of which he is also chair. While one recommendation was made for reducing administration by roughly $20,000 per year, the originally stated goal of reducing non-school services by $250,000 was largely deferred to subcommittees. Increasing fees, improving financial management, and changing the metrics for school budget growth were also suggested. It was noted that a parallel effort by the Carlisle School Committee will result in $170,000 per year saved as a result of administrative restructuring.

Hult said that interviews with town department heads had pinpointed about a dozen ideas for reducing costs or raising revenues. The committee had focused on structural, rather than one-time changes. To prioritize, the committee had derived a list of core services and key service attributes to be protected at all costs. “These are things the community wants, the community expects. This is where we draw the line,” said Hult. Town functions not on the core list were targeted for tighter cost management, including regionalization, more efficient use of current personnel, and possible use of volunteers.

Over the next three years Carlisle will suffer a $600,000 assessment increase for the high school as a result of higher student population. To weather the storm, the SFP suggested raising fees for some services such as the building department and Transfer Station. ALS revenues and regional transportation grants should also be investigated. A standing subcommittee should be formed to identify fee and grant opportunities every year.

The SFP also proposed the formation of a subcommittee to look at regionalizing some services such as the Board of Health and Recreation Commission. The subcommittee would “go through the work of understanding all the services,” and exploring relationships with other towns. It is hoped that $40,000 could be saved yearly in these functional areas. Hult noted that Bedford has inquired about merging communications departments, but this is unlikely because of the need to support an on-call Fire Department.

The SFP recommended one cut to personnel. The Administrative Coordinator position at $52,000 would be reduced to a $30,000 position and the non-housing parts of the job assumed by other staffers. The $30,000 would be financed through the CPA housing fund, which has over $300,000. Hult noted that Town Administrator Tim Goddard has been tasked with analyzing Town Hall personnel resources, schedules and tasks in the hope of realizing some efficiencies. However, there are not many obvious candidates for reduction at Town Hall, “We’re already pretty lean and mean” after several years of level budgets, said Hult.

Perhaps most concretely, the town can realize substantial short-term savings of as much as $100,000 by refinancing some outstanding debt. In addition, the committee suggested revisitng the CPA surcharge, which currently adds about $250 to the average tax bill.

Bend the curve

Beyond the three-year window, the committee’s concern is that two school building projects will require belt-tightening in every other area of town government. Hult pointed to the need to ‘bend the curve’ of budget growth, which has been above the rate of inflation and the 2 ½ % limit allowed without an override.

Hult suggested a number of policies to govern future growth. Currently, most Town Hall departments, including the police, fire, and library, are “at scale” and will not require additional personnel as the town grows. “We need to resist functional expansion,” said Hult. School populations will drop in the future, and metrics need to be devised to automatically adjust those budgets downward.

Most important will be compensation manangement, said Hult. “We pay well, but the idea we can continue to give multiples-of-inflation increases is not sustainable.” He recommended pay scales tied to inflation and a standard non-contractual salary increase across all town functions. Hult said that a reinvigorated Personnel Board with enhanced scope to review compensation is needed so “when we enter negotiations we have information on our side.” Finally, subcommittees are needed to monitor and recommend strategies for managing “budget-busters”, including energy, special education and benefits. In addition, a five-year capital plan should be added to the current year-to-year plan.

Hult noted that the recommendations of the SFP, combined with the administrative restructuring at the Carlisle School, would reduce budget shortfalls significantly. Over the next three years, he projects a free cash transfer of $200,000 to $400,000 per year would eliminate the need for an override. The long-term goal is to reduce taxes paid for a $750,000 home from an anticipated $15,000 in 2020 to $13,500, saving each homeowner $1,000 to $1500 per year, not including possible lifting of the CPA surcharge.

Doug Stevenson took issue with the notion that grants would provide substantial sums, and also pointed to a philosophical problem with using fees to raise revenues. In the past, he said, the town had “operated under the general concept fees should cover the service” and that it seemed unfair to burden one group of people who need building permits. Also, the Transfer Station is a service everyone in town uses. Stevenson noted the BOS had taken the position “A better way to fund it is through property taxes which are tax deductible.” Hult noted that other communities charge more for building permits than does Carlisle, and Dave Model spoke of the need to include burden costs as well as variable ones.

Several BOS members spoke in support of retaining the functionality of the Administrative Coordinator. Responded Hult, “We have a huge problem. We can’t get out of it without eliminating something.”

The BOS voted unanimously to request CPA funds for this purpose. It also voted to establish a committee to look at fees and grants, and another to check out regionalization.

Bill Tice noted the difficulty of relying on a revitalized Personnel Board, ”We’ve struggled to get people on that for a long time.” Hult suggested that targeted recruiting will be needed.

Members of the Structural Financial Planning Committee included: Chair Tim Hult, Selectman John Williams, Town Administrator Tim Goddard, Financial Director Larry Barton, Finance Committtee member Dave Model, Planning Board Chair David Freedman. Carlisle School Committee member Louis Salemy provided school-related information and former Selectman John Ballantine assisted with demographic data and projections.

Core Town Services

The following were identified as core services of town government by the Structural Financial Planning Committee:

• Schools – low class sizes, excellent teachers

• Library – hours, certification

• Police Department – 24/7 coverage

• Fire Department – on call structure, training

• Safety and care of elderly – transportation, health services

• DPW – safe roadways

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