Countdown to town meeting: What do you want to know?

by susan on April 6, 2010

Southborough’s annual town meeting starts next Monday, April 12, at 7:00 pm at the Trottier Middle School Auditorium.

Last year’s April town meeting was the first I attended as an adult, and even though I was up on most of the issues thanks to all the meetings I attended for this blog, I have to admit there were times I was a bit lost, and times when I wished I had more information so I could make a more informed decision.

I suspect many of you have been in the same boat. Those of you planning on attending town meeting for the first time next week may feel even more overwhelmed.

So, in the few days we have left before town meeting, let’s work on getting each other up to speed. What do you want to know before town meeting next week? Are there issues you’re fuzzy on? Procedural questions you want to understand better? Let me know in the comments.

You can learn more about what’s on the warrant by reading this post.

1 Al Hamilton April 6, 2010 at 3:59 PM

On Monday night the Advisory Committee met with the Board of Selectmen to discuss differences in their respective approaches to the Budget. At the 60,000 foot level the biggest difference is that the Selectmen’s budget calls for a 4.6% property tax increase and the Advisory budget calls for a 3.2% property tax increase. The 2 groups agree on most spending but there are some significant differences:

Legal Budgets – Advisory cut these 3% in line with other municipal reductions. The Selectmen maintained level funding.

Police – The Advisory recommendation is $45k less than the Selectmen’s. The difference relates to the Quinn Bill. The state is supposed to provide a certain sum of “Quinn Money” which is to be matched by the town. Next year the State will not provide most of this money. Our contract with the Police Union says that if the State does not pay we do not have to make up the state portion from our general fund. Advisory implemented the language in the contract, the Selectmen want to fund the missing State money from our property taxes.

K-8 Technology – Advisory recommends funding at the level requested by the K-8 School Committee ($89k), the Selectmen propose to eliminate this item. Advisory has been supportive of this budget as it barely funds replacement of the computer systems in our schools.

Police Cruisers – Advisory has recommended not buying police cruisers this year and the Selectmen support purchase of a cruiser ($30k). Advisory believes that we should plan on using and maintaining a cruiser for about 125k miles vs the less than 100k miles that is the current practice.

DPW Equipment – Advisory has recommended putting off the purchase of a sander and sander/plow truck and subcontracting this service instead. The Selectmen have recommended the purchase of this equipment and not purchasing other equipment. The difference in approaches is that Advisory would spend $56k less on this equipment this year. Advisory agreed to meet with DPW on Thurs to further review this item.

DPW Roads – The Selectmen’s budget spends $100k less on road maintenance ($150k vs $250k). There was substantial discussion about the need to provide between $250 and $350 per year to fund road maintenance (This sum is typically combined with state money (ch 90) and held for 2 or 3 years and then a large(over a $1 million) contract is given for large scale road work. ).

Stabilization – The Advisory budget actually spends slightly more than the Seletmen’s budget but raises taxes less. The difference is that the Advisory committee recommends taking $490k out of the Stabilization fund (taxes you already paid) to help offset the tax rate. This amount is very close to the amount that the State stiffed us for in special ed “circuit breaker” money.

Substantial discussion was held on the approaches to the budget. In the end neither budget is really balanced. Advisory funds the budget by drawing down the Stabilization fund asset (an unproductive asset) and the Selectmen fund the budget by drawing down the K-8 technology and Road asset (productive assets).

2 Townie April 6, 2010 at 6:56 PM

Al, thanks for the great info! Cleared up things for me. I like how its very short and to the point, and also clearly shows how the BOS wants to spend money left and right when they keep saying cut cut cut……..I think we all get caught up with the long talks over these issues and forget the main issue.

3 Pat Quill April 6, 2010 at 8:08 PM

Thanks Al, for a great synopsis of Monday nights meeting. I guess my issues/questions
would be the following:

1) It disturbs me that BOS wants to eliminate the request by K-8 School Committe to
keep funding level (89K) which as you say, barely funds replacement of computer systems currently at our schools. SC has managed to keep funding (for Technology) level at a time when I’m sure technology could use a bit of revamping just to stay current.

2) Replacement of Police cruiser: are there mileage cut off amounts that other police
departments use as a marker for replacement? I’d be curious to know if there is some
sort of rule of thumb. Another good mantra………..”if it ain’t broke…don’t fix it”

3) Police dept: BOS wants to fund the missing state money for the Quinn Money……
from our property taxes. Is this prudent when an increasing number of households are
delinquent on their property taxes? We don’t HAVE to match the funds if the state
doesn’t provide them. Maybe someone can fill me in on what this Quinn Money is
used for. I plead “lack of knowledge” on this one.

4) Legal budget: Why is Advisory able to cut their legal budget and BOS can only
come to the table maintaining level funding? I say, try again BOS.

5) From what little I know about municipal ratings, I agree with the Advisory Boards
approach to tap into the stabilization fund (490K) to help offset the tax rate.
If now is not the right time to use it….. when would be? What ELSE needs to strap our towns
budget in order for it to be tapped into? Just what kind of scenario needs to happen in
order for BOS to be comfortable enough to use it? For goodness sake, give the good people of this town a break here.

4 Al Hamilton April 7, 2010 at 8:46 AM

1. Police Cruisers – When we buy a cruiser it comes with a 75k mile warranty. The current practice is that when the warranty is up we being to plan for the replacement of the unit and sell it for $100. This leads to replacement of cruisers with mileage under 100k. In the past we have held on to cruisers until 125k and I have been told that is the practice in some other communities but that is purely anecdotal. These cars are subject to usage patterns that are not the same as the family car. In particular they idle a lot more but the often go on after police use to serve as taxis for several years.

2. The Quinn bill rewards police officers for taking courses and obtaining degrees. If a community adopts the Quinn Bill (we have) then the community agrees to pay for half of the money due to the officers under the bill and the State agreed to pay the other half. This year the state said “we don’t have the money and will not pay”. Our contract with the Police union says that if the state does not fund it’s portion we do not have to make this sum up from property taxes.

5 Eileen April 7, 2010 at 10:04 AM

Thank you Al for the wealth of knowledge you are providing the residents in order to understand the numbers for Monday night. Thank you Pat for your inquisitive questions that you’ve put out there…..you’ve put into writing what many of us are thinking! I have to say the Advisory Board has put many, many hours into working on this budget and there views on the Stabilization fund should be taken very seriously. It is already our tax money and should be used accordingly. But everyone needs to keep in mind, that next year at this time may look even worse. All departments need to continually look at cost saving measures.

Here are my questions:
1. How much money has been used from the Stabilization fund in the past? How has this fund been generated? Is there anyway to replenish it (besides accruing interest)?

2. How many of our Police Officers are using the Quinn Bill at this time? If the teachers are giving up their reimbursement for education this year, maybe our Officers should too.

I hope in the next few days that the residents of Southboro, especially the parents of school age children, make sure their schedules can accommodate attending Town Meeting on Monday and Tuesday. Don’t let someone else make the decision for you…..show up and raise your hand for what you support. Make plans with your neighbors for babysitting, talk with your coaches about leaving practices early, and take a seat in the auditorium. I hope all the seats can be filled the way they were for the Neary School play and last month’s Spelling Bee!

6 Al Hamilton April 7, 2010 at 12:39 PM

I believe that the stabilization fund had a peak balance of about $2.9 million. The monies were put there in the 90’s when we had more revenue than things to spend it on. In effect those who lived in town then paid more in property taxes than was required to fund the operations of government.

It is possible to replenish the stabilization fund by taxing ourselves in excess of what is required to fund government.

At some point in the next year or 2 there should be a large amount of monies released from the Overlay Reserve Fund that represents the funds we are entitled to keep based on the resolution of the Telecoms Property Tax Dispute. The current balance in this fund related to the Telecoms money is about $2.3 million. It is under the sole control of the Board of Assessors. The Stabilization fund might be an appropriate place to park that money until it can be drawn down in an orderly fashion.

I am in favor of using the telecoms money, assuming it is a significant number, to help supplement the FY 12 and 13 budgets, thereby putting off a prop 2.5 override until 2014. In 2014 a significant amount of our Algonquin and other debt comes off the books (we are carrying a very high debt burden) and that might create the climate where we could accept a Prop 2.5 override without significant tax increase.

7 Pat Quill April 7, 2010 at 11:08 AM

Thanks Al. Those things being said…….

If we have hung on to the cruisers in the past until 125K than we should
certainly continue the practice now. Can’t we wait for better times before we start replacing cruisers as soon as the warranty is up at 75k miles? Sounds like an easy call
for tough budget times. Granted they are subject to usage patterns different from the family
car, but they also are not patrolling towns/cities the size of Worcester or Framingham for
example.

I applaud Southborough for adopting the Quinn Bill for officers in our town….sounds
like a commendable thing to do for our officers. Perhaps, though, facing the issues that we are facing, we should opt to pass for a year (or two) on making up half the money due officers under the bill. Perhaps put it on hold but make it a priority as soon as budget allows.
I admit, this is a tough one though… I hate to take opportunities away from anyone who wants to take courses, obtain degrees, etc especially since it benefits our town in the end. However, I am weary of depending yet again on property taxes in these tough times.

I can’t help but think some of these budget cutting options/issues are actually quite feasible,
(certainly uncomfortable and difficult) WHEN you take the time to look around and see what other towns and states are facing. How many times in the past 2 months have I read about handfuls of entire schools being closed in a single town (or half in an entire state) and huge teacher lay offs. Only recently I read about a nearby town considering dismantling some of their most beloved sports completely (hockey, for one example) as well as afterschool programs at the same time raising fees for programs being kept intact. These participating families and kids are devastated. It will have implications for these kids when trying to stay competitive on college applications, athletic scholarship money to help defray tuition costs, or
just keeping busy and out of trouble.

Let’s approach these budget cutting options with eyes wide open and a healthy perspective.
I mean, just for ONE example, if we can’t agree that keeping a cruiser for 50k more miles is an easy way to take some of the stress off the budget than we have a REAL problem on our hands. (For the record, I am not saying that the town takes a hit and not the schools just because I gave examples of a police cruiser vs. schools and athletic programs. It should be
across the board, as tough as it is).

8 Mark April 7, 2010 at 10:30 PM

It is interesting that when we talk about departments in the town the Recreation department seems to fly under the radar screen. I would like to ask why the Recreation department needs a budget of $117,764 to fund the salaries of 2 full time employees and one part time admin in this major budget crunch year? Yes, they stepped up to a 3% budget cut but why would the BOS not ask for greater cuts? This is a nice to have department not a need to have. We are expecting large budget cuts from our schools that will result in loss of teachers and from our police department which could limit our safety. Why can’t we reduce the recreation department down to 1 full time or even 1 part time employee to coordinate the fields? When the economy is improved that department could easily be expanded. Do we really need 3 employees to run recreation programs? Many of the programs that are offered thru the recreation department would still be available directly through the businesses that run them. Everytime I have seen anyone ask about the Recreation department the response is they are working on being self funded. But the truth is they are not self funded and the tax payers in this town are funding their salaries.
Al, it would be great to hear why the advisory committee hasn’t recommended a downsizing of the Recreation department versus asking the schools to make further cuts.
I think the residents of this town would be surprised to hear that the Recreation department costs to run and that it is not self sufficient and not close to becoming self sufficient. If we are combing every nook and couch cushion for coins, let’s make some changes until the economy improves.

9 Al Hamilton April 8, 2010 at 7:41 AM

For a number of years the Advisory committee has pushed the Rec department to become self sufficient and we believe that it is.

The funds received from fees cover the costs of the program and send sufficient money into the general fund to cover the cost of operating the Rec Department with some money left over. I will try to get you the “P&L” for this but it might take a day or so.

It is true that if you also include some reasonable portion of field maintenance the P&L would tip into the red. But, I asked the following question this year “If we did away with the Rec Department entirely how much would our field maintenance budget decline?” The answer was $0.00. So, at the margin it appears that the Rec Department makes money for the town. In my opinion, any department that makes money should be given much more leeway with it’s budget just as a company will do with a profitable division.

As a side note this is the only department in town that produces a Profit and Loss Statement. It is a very powerful and useful tool. (Are the other revenue generating departments listening?)

10 Mark April 8, 2010 at 1:04 PM

Al, thank you for the follow up on my question. I am confused as how the Recreation department makes money for the town when we are funding their salaries to the tune of $117,764? If they were self sufficient then we wouldn’t be funding the salaries.

11 Al Hamilton April 8, 2010 at 1:47 PM

Part of this has to do with how the town is required to keep the books and what is and is not a permitted use of a revolving fund.

The Rec Dept charges for its programs and has a revenue on the order of $300,000 which goes into a revolving fund. Some of this money is used to pay the direct costs of the program and some is used to pay for some types of operating expenses. What is left over exceeds the amount that is in the budget but has to be returned to the general fund rather than offset the expenses. I will try to get the real numbers for you tonight.

12 Doreen Ferguson April 9, 2010 at 12:02 AM

Mark, You bring up some very good questions and concerns. I believe Al has answered most of them. I invite you, and anyone else, to give me call in the office and I will be happy to answer any questions about the department. Thanks, Doreen, Recreation Director (and resident)

13 Mark April 9, 2010 at 10:03 AM

Thank you, Doreen. and Al. Perhaps one of you could post the numbers or send me a link as I am very much a numbers person.

14 Al Hamilton April 9, 2010 at 2:59 PM

Mark

I have asked to have the detail put on the Advisory Web Site. In the interim the 2010 numbers which are tracking to plan are:

Revenue
Program Revenue $304,500
Facility Reservation fees $75000
Total
Program Cost – $236,900

15 Al Hamilton April 9, 2010 at 3:04 PM

Mark

I have asked to have the detail put on the Advisory Web Site. In the interim the 2010 numbers which are tracking to plan are:

Program Revenue $304,500
Facility Reservation fees $75000
Total Revenue $379,500
Program Cost – $236,900
Transfer to the General Fund $142,600
Operating Budget (from General Fund) $113,902
Net Profit $28,698

This does not include field maintenance costs as noted before but if we shut the rec department down the town would be $28.7k poorer since the maintenance costs would not change.

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