Town struggling with budget challenges (including schedule)

by beth on November 9, 2018

This week, Treasurer Brian Ballantine painted a not-so-pretty picture for the next Annual Town Meeting. Budget projections are always higher in the fall before it gets scaled back. But this time appears to be worse than usual.

With “new growth” down by 27% this year, the preliminary budget is $93K over the levy limit. And Ballantine said that even cutting the budget by about $100K would lead to a 10%+ tax increase. Now his challenge is bringing numbers down to a 5-7% increase without causing bigger long term problems.

Ballantine and Advisory Chair Adrian Peters also warned that on its current track, the Town is in danger of losing its AAA rating not far down the road. A lower bond rating would lead to higher borrowing costs.

The levy issue isn’t a result of the Public Safety Building, since that borrowing is exempt. (Though it is responsible for 2.75% of the tax increase needed.) Issues include capital expenses that will cause more problems if they are put off again, reasonable budget requests (without major staffing increases), and some projects including borrowing for Recreation.

Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf recalled her previous service on the board during difficult financial times. (She originally served from 2002-2011.) She said that this wasn’t a one year issue and warned about longer term problems if they don’t address it now.

Ballantine said that each department’s budget is legitimate “in a vacuum”. But with the budget challenge, they’ll need to look at what can be shaved. He asked selectmen what tax increase figure he should target. In the end, they asked him to look at 5%, 6%, and 7%.

Selectman Brian Shea, a former Advisory member explained that the exercise is valuable even if 5% is too low. It allows voters to understand what services would be sacrificed to meet a lower budget.

One factor blamed as complicating this year’s budget work is the schedule approved by Special Town Meeting voters in May. Officials said that moving the meeting up by 3 weeks is making the budget timeline harder to meet and financials more uncertain.

[Editor’s Note: I’m not sure where the “3 weeks” came from, since my math shows it could be just 10 days.] *

In March, voters may be asked to change the ATM schedule back to April. 

Ballantine said the tighter time frame means that more uncertain numbers. He explained that excise tax is the Town’s highest revenue stream, and that data isn’t released by the RMV until mid-late February. By then he said, the budget would be done. He was also concerned about not having benefits expense data in future years. (Apparently, they lucked out in getting that this cycle.)

He and Peters also pointed to the deadline change as overlapping critical budget meeting weeks with the holidays. 

Back in May, officials questioned the need to move to a Saturday, but none spoke against the move to March.** Resident Desiree Aselbekian questioned if the schedule would be too difficult for the schools. School Committee Chair Paul Desmond replied that it was just a matter of starting sooner, harder but doable. This week, Ballantine confirmed that it has been especially difficult for the schools.

Making it clear that they would keep it on Saturdays, Peters said it was critical to push the ATM to a later date.

Peters told selectmen that they all made a mistake by not speaking out against moving up the meeting. Chair Lisa Braccio acknowledged that they all knew it would be harder, but didn’t realize the extent. 

Braccio asked the board to consider discussing how to schedule the ATM and a potential STM. The Warrant will contain a placeholder for an Article to change the schedule. The board will discuss the issue again in December or early January after Ballantine updates them on how things stand.

Back to the fiscal challenges – if you want more details on the situation, you can see Ballantine’s preliminary figures here. Thanks to Southborough Access Media, you can also see what he and Peters had to say here.

*Editor’s Note: The new rules specify opening Annual Town Meeting on a Saturday in March chosen by selectmen. This year, the last Friday in March is the 30th. (If timing is an issue, I don’t know why they would choose an earlier weekend.)

Previously, ATM was set to begin the 2nd Monday of April. In past years, schedules were sometimes moved to avoid holidays and spring break. But this year, that would have been April 8th, and I couldn’t find any holidays that would have prompted a move. (Last year, it opened on April 9th.) 

*In May, Advisory didn’t take a position on the STM Article in May. Selectmen took a “Not Support” position but didn’t make any statements about a budget process challenge if it was moved up.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard November 9, 2018 at 10:22 PM

How much is the town spending on copy and printing paper? Has the town gone paperless in every possible place? Is the town scanning all incoming paper documents and storing and indexing them electronically to eliminate paper storage and archiving costs? Has printing been eliminated in favor of electronic PDF documents? Needless use of paper and toner can cost tens of thousands of dollar annually. And I certainly hope the school department isn’t paying exhorbitant rates for branded Scantron test sheets when far less-expensive alternatives are available.

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2 Mike FUce November 13, 2018 at 9:32 AM

Please come up with some real solutions, like closing buildings, cutting town worker benefits and retirement contribution, salaries, and the number of 1 on 1 school teachers in Southborough.Until we do that locally and nationally, debt will continue to soar…. Paper, please….

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3 North Sider November 13, 2018 at 4:30 PM

The reliance on paper is not only a waster of money, it’s a complete nuisance an not necessary in 2018. Filling out the exact same information on 3 forms for multiple kids is redundant and wasteful of both time and resources.

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4 beth November 14, 2018 at 7:21 AM

I believe that some of the forms you are referring to are state requirements.

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5 North Sider November 16, 2018 at 3:36 PM

Totally fine if they are required, but going digital wouldn’t kill anyone! :)

6 Townie November 10, 2018 at 8:51 AM

All I can think about is all the lost tax revenue from residents opposing Park Central, the town rejecting Fayville Hall sale, and other rejected residential and commercial properties.

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7 Trixie November 10, 2018 at 10:17 AM

Time for a split property tax rate and for Fay and St Mark’s Schools to increase their pilot payments. However, I will not hold my breath for either.

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8 southsider November 11, 2018 at 11:34 AM

Great call out, Trixie… split tax rates are long overdue.

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9 Concerned November 12, 2018 at 5:39 PM

I agree with Trixie. Taxes should be evenly paid by those that use the services of the town. Thanks to the Dover Amendment, the private schools thumb their noses at the thought of contributing to the fiscal sustainability of Southborough. Yet those same schools (Fay, St. Marks, New England Center for Children, Harvard), churches and medical facilities use all the services of the town (police, fire, schools, building dept, health dept., etc) which are funded by tax dollars. If I am not mistaken, St. Marks is the largest single property owner in Southborough, yet contributes, again, I believe, $10,000 in PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) to the town. Fay – $10,000. NECC pays a little more, but nothing in comparison to the value of property it owns. In addition, these schools have purchased numerous houses in Southborough, each time taking that additional house off the tax basis. St. Marks purchased a house on Main St. a few years ago – it now apparently houses three families (based on the house #s on Main St.). NECC has purchased more than a dozen homes in Fayville in the last few years. Why doesn’t Southborough ask more of the non-profits in town?

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10 Mike Fuce November 13, 2018 at 9:36 AM

Excellent!

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11 Mike Fuce November 13, 2018 at 9:34 AM

Your on the right track Trixie, alleviate all 501C3 statuses, mortgage deductions and a simple 15% flat tax for every dollar of earned income. That will also level the playing field in politics. Churches, don’t worry, people will continue to tithe.

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12 Louise Barron November 10, 2018 at 2:20 PM

The Budget. It isn’t printer toner,and paper that’s bringing us to our knees. REALLY! We have out of control, and poorly managed and unnecessary legal fees, including a situation with a town administrator taking on Counsel and Special Legal Counsel without authorization, attempting to overturn an APPROVED Article One by the town, and has aspirations for Town Manager. With meeting minutes being released a year after a meeting, and omitting Article 25 from the minutes and it’s subsequent vote by the BOS at that very meeting. This is all illegal folks. OPEN MEETING LAW VIOLATIONS. And this person want to rule the town. Ha.
Tighten up Capital Budget Articles, EDC, is that really money being well spent. Is it time to look at Youth Commission and Council on Aging. What are we actually spending per student today vs. ten years ago. Student enrollment is down. It appears that our town is using the Broward County Florida Election Commission as our mentor for running our government.

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13 L Chan November 10, 2018 at 5:25 PM

Just like profitable companies, the town needs to start cutting out wasteful expenditures. Unfortunately, there may be too many personnel in the town. Every year it is the same story-increased taxes, but no accountability.

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14 Alfred Hamilton November 12, 2018 at 8:53 AM

While it is important to focus on inefficiencies on the Municipal side of government (there are plenty) the lion’s share of our tax dollars, roughly 2/3, are spend on public education.

10 years ago our K-8 School population was 1615 students. Today it stands at 1320. That is a nearly 20% decline. Based on current populations it is likely to decline further. Some serious questions need to be asked and answered.

1. Can we really afford a 4 school system or would our educational resources be better redeployed in a 3 school format?

2. Why in the presence of a decline in the demand for services are budgets increasing.

3. With the paying off of our High School debts, will the taxpayers get any relief?

Don’t worry the questions wont be asked and wont be answered.

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15 Frank Crowell November 12, 2018 at 11:17 AM

You have brought this up for years without a reply. New education committee members have been elected with a promise to look into this – NO ANSWER. To me this is the number one reason why an outside person should be hired for the superintendent job and the probably the main reason an in-house person will be get the job.

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16 Trixie November 12, 2018 at 12:20 PM

Another question – The decline in students should eliminate at least one classroom per grade. Has that happened? If not, what are the average current class sizes per room?

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17 Jessica Devine November 13, 2018 at 11:36 AM

Hi everyone. I am a new member of the Southborough School Committee. I see questions like these getting asked on the blog here and there. If you want them or any other questions to be answered, I ask you to please attend our next meeting this Wednesday, November 14, at 6:30pm at Trottier’s library. That is where you can bring up your questions to the SSC during an audience sharing session. We have one right at the start of the meeting and one at the very end of the meeting. Due to open meeting laws, it is difficult for SSC members to answer questions on a blog such as this one, so attending a meeting is the best way to get questions answered.

If we can’t give you answers right at the meeting, I will be sure we look into the answers and do our best to have some for you at our next meeting in December. You can also contact any of us via email at SSC@nsboro.k12.ma.us.

Given how new I am to the SSC, I am still learning and asking a lot of questions of my own — including some of the ones mentioned above. I think all questions are valid and worth discussing, and I look forward to seeing you at a future meeting!

Thanks,
Jessica Devine

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18 Frank Crowell November 15, 2018 at 12:19 PM

Ms. Devine,

Thank you for your service. Some of us, due to our work, cannot make these meetings. I’m writing this from BWI. All of the questions above have been asked in this forum and/or at the meetings without answer. Please find out the answers and place them here on the board. If they can be answered in an open meeting or by email they can be answered here for those who care can see and comment.

I am fairly sure this is against school committee policy but I do notice other committees’ members commenting on open Southborough issues. You may not like some of the comments but that is part of being a public servant.

Again, thank you for your service.

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19 New Resident November 15, 2018 at 3:09 PM

Ms. Devine… I am also very busy. I know that you have a job, family and volunteer to help our community by serving the school committee but please also run by the store on your way home and finish my grocery shopping. Come to my house and place the groceries in my cabinets. Despite having complained many times to many blogs my cabinets have yet to be filled. If you have time to shop for yourself then you can shop for me. I am writing this from JFK.

20 Jessica Devine November 15, 2018 at 9:28 PM

Hi Mr. Crowell,

For many reasons, I am not comfortable posting answers to SSC questions on a blog that is not mine. However, I’ve been working on starting my own blog, where (among other topics) I will write about school committee meetings. People will be able to ask questions there, and I will feel more comfortable answering in a forum that I own.

My blog should be ready to go in the new year, if not sooner. Until then, please feel free to contact me via the school committee email address I posted in my original reply. After Thanksgiving, I could chat over the phone if you’d prefer. I also work, but if I have some warning I can block out some time during the workday.

Thanks,
Jessica

21 Honestly Able November 18, 2018 at 6:36 PM

Ms. Devine,
Just a point of protocol, but you may want to re-examine state laws on sharing your opinion / blogging on public town business (doesn’t matter who owns the site), since it may be problematic separating your official role and your comments on public town business(?). It is noteworthy that one does not often, if ever, see any elected public town officials commenting, or rarely, and that probably is for some reason.

As a point of interest, I voted for you. However, I now do not support you at all and would never vote for you again. I voted for you in the morning, but had to return to the polling place late afternoon. At that point in the day, I saw you and your supporters with signs standing with another candidate (BOS candidate, Mr. Shea, who might not have been re-elected without this combo) whom I do not support as I feel that is time to give other candidates a chance at bat and time for a change. You made no mention whatsoever in advance to my knowledge of this (at least in visibility) mutual support. I felt thoroughly deceived by this affiliation (even if loose and informal). It was clear from the standing together, at least to me, all with your election signs in hand, that the two of you were supporting each others candidacy.

I am thoroughly disappointed in that maneuver. For that reason, I felt the visible graphics of that move was clear and misleading, at least to me, as a voter, just my opinion. Sorry to say you have lost my support. In the future, to win support back, you might be more careful and less political, running on your own merits. Disappointed.

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22 Mike Fuce November 13, 2018 at 9:38 AM

Very, very good Al. Now why isn’t this done immediately?

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23 SB Resident November 12, 2018 at 11:50 AM

Is it me or is this a game that is played every year.

Here are the rules. Pretend the preliminary budget is super high, look good by cutting it back and trick residents into being happy with a still high increase.

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24 Resident November 12, 2018 at 12:15 PM

Start with the schools. The waste in those schools is completely out of control right down to the coffee the Superintendent has in her office. We pay for all of that. I would think with her salary, she could buy her own. Whomever is approving these budgets isn’t looking at the real unneccesary spending and just lets everything be approved. We give big raises to Mark Purple and the Police Chief and nobody thinks this has consequences?? Nothing will change unless we stop re-electing the officials who either don’t pay attention or love to spend. We only have ourselves to blame

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25 Al Hamilton November 12, 2018 at 3:33 PM

Nothing will change until Town Meeting votes No.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” Pogo

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26 Mike Fuce November 13, 2018 at 9:29 AM

Another misappropriation of taxes (maybe, I have learned to say maybe, I don’t know everything). The governments in general use “Excise Tax , Road Tax, Vehicle Tax” as an income stream, misappropriating what is meant to be used 100% for our roads. Such bull crap. And everyone hates conservatives right? How embarrassing that we keep voting in statewide and nationally (our town boards and managers do a good job), the same liberal tax and spenders (that includes republicans). I did look at the excise tax and spending last year after conversations with Carolyn Dykma, our DPW manager and public records.

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27 arborist November 14, 2018 at 7:31 AM

Trixie: and Concerned, you are right on with your posts, The private schools aren’t the only ones purchasing houses in town, St. Anne’s has purchased houses near the church and St, Matthews has purchased a house next to the church and rents it out. These purchases took these property’s off the tax roll. There for the so called non profits should do their part in making it somewhat fair to all the rest of us that are paying our fair share

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28 Matthew Brownell November 16, 2018 at 8:34 AM

Very interesting and tough questions posed on this string.

If Southborough’s public school student population has been steadily declining, then taxpayers should should be seeing some relief passed along from properly managed CAPEX and OPEX.

I would be interested in seeing Southborough’s trailing 20’year history of total enrolled public school students at the elementary/ middle schools, and Algonquin Regional High.
Then we bump-up the year-by-year school budgets ( especially Operating expenses) and account for average inflation.

In fact , I would to see a similar snapshot for Youth Services, Seniors, Recreation,Public Works, and so on.

Reading through the initial, proposed Southborough budget line requests for 2019, I was staggered by the number of line items containing a year over year budget increase greater than 5%.

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29 southsider November 16, 2018 at 9:34 AM

Knowing how difficult the budget is, why would the financial powers-that-be decide that this is a good year to increase the planned Reserve Fund from $200k to $250k? What an easy pickup of $50k.

also…looking at Employee Benefits in the Town section of the budget seems to indicate that those benefits are a pretty significant portion ( 30% of the operating plan … $3.6MM on top of a base of $11.7MM ) of the Plan. I see it’s only going up by 4% but the $3.6MM number seems excessive….

I simply do not understand why the two-tier tax solution isn’t embraced by our BOS.

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30 Frank Crowell November 16, 2018 at 10:56 AM

Ms. Devine – thanks for your reply. Let us know when your new blog is ready – I do prefer this one.

New Resident – You may be stuck in JFK. If so, try the sushi on the go in the Jet Blue terminal. They have wonderful prepackaged sushi. I promise it is not more than a day old. Happy travels.

Taxpayers of Southborough – prepare for larger tax bills.

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31 David Parry November 19, 2018 at 6:21 AM

Regarding contributions from non- profits … I have a question on public school costs.

I am told that some of the children of the staff and faculty of private schools, actually go to our public schools. In doing so, they get their school costs paid by taxpayers, because they live in tax-exempt housing.

Am I mistaken? Or is this so insignificant as to be irrelevant?

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32 beth November 19, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Certainly, this is true of St. Mark’s School. I don’t know about Fay School.

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33 Al Hamilton November 19, 2018 at 12:58 PM

My information is a little dated but I believe that the number of school children coming from tax exempt housing is numbered in the 10’s. A few years ago the cost was on the order of $300,000 per year.

I am not begrudging the education afforded these kids but the reality is that the private schools are receiving a very large subsidy from Southborough taxpayers.

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34 Concerned November 19, 2018 at 8:47 PM

Considering the number of houses the private schools have purchased in town in the last few years alone, I would think that number to be astonishingly low. Yes, we support the children they send to public school without any recompense from property taxes (or, in most cases PILOT). Time for changes.

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35 resident November 19, 2018 at 2:08 PM

I was also told that the school pays the tuition if they are in full day kindergarten.

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36 Lucy November 19, 2018 at 8:07 PM

Hold: on town counsel and ourvrogue special town counsel. Don’t think we should pay either of these unethical attorneys another dime

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