The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 1, 2010

Carlisle and Concord confer, CCHS eyes 3% budget increase

Carlisle’s relationship with its partner in education, Concord, appeared hale and hardy at a Joint Coordination Meeting of the two towns’ Boards of Selectmen (BOS) and Finance Committees (FinComs) with the Regional School Committee on September 23. Both towns reported some positive trends for FY12 that may relieve some of the cost-cutting pressure experienced in the past two or three cycles, and make it easier to reach agreement on a high school budget.

But a potential loose cannon is Question 3 on the November ballot to reduce the sales tax. If passed, warned Concord Finance Director Tony Logalbo, the state would be forced to cut local aid, potentially putting both towns and the high school in financial trouble.

Carlisle BOS member Doug Stevenson noted the Joint Meeting “is a great opportunity to learn about each other and talk about our partnership.” It is held each September, and provides an opportunity to coordinate plans before the budget process in each town gets underway.

Although Concord and Carlisle vote budgets separately, they must reach agreement on a consistent level of funding for the Concord-Carlisle Regional High School (CCHS). In the past, problems arose when the towns pursued separate agendas. Now, in addition to the Joint Meeting, the committee chairs continue to meet monthly with their counterparts for updates and information.

CCHS costs moderate

Superintendant Diana Rigby reported that, if all goes as planned, she expects to request a less than 3% increase for CCHS for FY12. Reduced Special Education outplacements are a key part of an improved financial picture, she noted, as are “contained contracts” for teachers. There is some additional good news for Carlisle: the ratio of Carlisle students is down slightly, meaning that over $100,000 of operating costs will be shifted from Carlisle to Concord in FY12.

Stevenson thanked the high school administration for “very good communication the last few years.” He applauded the initiative to find cost-effective ways to provide special education, and suggested, “Make sure the state is doing their part.”

Carlisle tight, Concord more room on budget

Logalbo reported that Concord will have over $2 million in unused levy for FY12, thanks to unanticipated revenues in FY11, including state aid, the hotel and meals tax and an unexpected grant for elementary school construction. As a result, taxes could be raised by 5.6% without an override at Concord Town Meeting. State law Proposition 2 1/2 limits tax increases to 2 1/2% per year, but allows the application of one year’s unused levy to the next. The higher taxes could support a budget increase of 4.5%. “I’m not suggesting what should be, but what could be,” Logalbo added.

Stevenson, speaking for missing BOS Chair John Williams, responded that for FY12, Carlisle “is in a little better position than the last few years” but “we’re not in the position you’re in.” He expressed concern that Concord could support a significant operating increase for the high school without an override, but Carlisle could not. He also noted the difficulty of raising taxes on a growing Carlisle senior population.

Carlisle FinCom Chair Dave Guarino said the town’s non-education departments have been held to 0% increases the past two years and he hopes a small increase will be possible in those areas.

In a later phone conversation, Guarino ventured, “We can probably support a modest increase without an override” but it is too early to give numbers. He added, “It won’t be as tight as the last couple years. We aren’t starting out by asking departments for a 10% cut” as occurred in the past. He continued, “I hope the high school estimate is somewhat accurate. Three percent is certainly good news.”

High school building vote fall of 2011?

Jerry Wedge of the High School Building Committee noted the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) has verbally agreed to finance a major renovation (see “CCHS feasibility study gets green light from state,” page 1). Another issue impacting state funding is projected enrollment. After some negotiation, the committee and MSBA have agreed to plan for a school of 1,225 students. However, one of the Concord elementary schools saw an unexpected increase, so that number may have to be revised.

Stevenson pointed to the $20 million Carlisle School project and noted the need for coordination so as not to overburden Carlisle taxpayers. He asked for feedback on the scope and timing of the CCHS building. Wedge said that MSBA “sees a great bidding climate and would like to expedite.” A feasibility agreement may be reached soon, but “It’s very unlikely we would have a warrant article this (fiscal) year.” He anticipates Special Town Meetings will be needed next fall to approve the schematic design in both towns.

Stevenson and Wedge were at odds on whether the committee should be working toward a targeted cost. Stevenson wants affordability to be considered at the same time as needs and wants. “Make sure there’s a group of people looking at what the two communities can afford or will support,” he counseled. Wedge assured him, “We don’t want to divide the towns. We will have outreach to get citizens on board.”

The building committee will look at the possibility of private financing of some facilities not covered under the state funding plan, including the athletic center. MSBA allows this, as long as the private facilities are stand-alone and do not share systems with the main school.

Question 3, retirement health care give worries

If Question 3, reducing the sales tax to 3%, passes on the ballot this November, the state will face an estimated $4.5 billion deficit. Mike Lawson of the Concord FinCom said that after several years of falling revenues, local aid is one of the few areas left to be cut. “Cities and towns are the last big place for the state to go. We can expect a substantial hit January 1” if the bill passes. He suggested some scenarios be drafted to educate the electorate.

Logalbo noted that with $2 million in state aid for CCHS, a large percentage cut “changes everything.” Carlisle receives another $1 million in state aid which could also be slashed. Wedge noted that MSBA funding could also be affected.

A state-required audit has revealed significant exposure in Concord and at CCHS due to future post-employment health-care obligations, said Logalbo. He said that $2 million per year should be set aside to meet the actuarial liability in Concord, and $750,000 per year for the high school. He suggested a meeting between the Concord, Carlisle, and CCHS finance directors to develop a plan. Concord Selectman Gregory Howes summarized, “So you think it would be in our best interest to present a plan to meet this nebulous unknowable future liability?” Legalbo responded, “This is an important issue we’re going to face,” and said that credit ratings could be impacted if nothing is done.

Guarino later said that the Carlisle FinCom will ask Treasurer Larry Barton to put together some information on possible impacts of Question 3 and make some recommendations for post-employment health-care liabilities. A recap of the Joint Meeting will be conducted at the October 4 FinCom meeting. He added, “This is the third time I’ve attended a Joint Meeting, and they’re always helpful. It’s interesting to see what Concord’s looking at, what their concerns are, and where they stand.” ∆

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