BOS & Advisory to go back at budget differences on Monday (Updated)

by beth on June 3, 2020

When we head into the week of Annual Town Meeting, the FY21 budget to be presented to voters will still be in flux.

An effort for the Board of Selectmen and Advisory Committee to reach consensus last night didn’t succeed. (In fact, each board/committee is itself still split.)

Still, the situation isn’t dire. The board and committtee still hope to hash out differences before ATM. The discrepency is relatively small. And each group is proposing a budget that would cause less than a 1% tax increase. 

As of last night the officials were haggling over differences that would result in a tax increase ranging from 0.82% to 0.98% (If  one capital item is postponed as suggested by Advisory, that could be even lower.)* Selectwoman Lisa Braccio noted that residents watching their debate should feel reassured by the effort being put in by the officials over small percents of the budget.

Most of the joint meeting on Tuesday night, was spent debating the merits of start dates for new hires in Fiscal Year July 202o – June 2021. 

Three selectmen voted to hold off on hiring anyone new until January 1st. Two selectmen disagreed, citing the new hires as immediate, critical needs. All Advisory members supported immediate hires for three out of four new hires, with two opposing the immediate start for a position that they had opposed hiring in the first place.

[Editor’s Note: Advisory Chair Kathy Cook contacted me to let me know that my initial reporting on Advisory’s stance was inaccurate. I revised it above. More details are at the bottom of the post.]**

After about a half hour, neither side was swayed.

The group will reconvene over zoom on Monday night. At that time, they’ll also go over other budget differences that they didn’t dig into yet. 

As for the start dates. . .

Freeze proponents pointed to uncertainty around future local aid and the economy. They pushed for the ability to cancel hires if the budget required it. They don’t want to hire people then let staff go soon after.

Advisory Chair Kathy Cook and Selectman Dan Kolenda were among those arguing for the immediate need for a Southborough Youth & Family Services admin and an underling to the Information Technology Director. They also supported the Police Chief’s need for hiring two officers to meet shift staffing needs. If “difficult” staff cuts need to be made in the future, they suggested it would likely be from other departments. 

Between last week and last night, Advisory did downgrade their IT request. They had been advocating to upgrade the parttime employee request to a full time one. It appeared that the decision to let that go was based on the timing with a quickly approaching Town Meeting.

Advisory member John Rooney referred to the difference in start dates to the FY21 budget as just $40 per taxpayer. Selectmen Marty Healey and Lisa Braccio argued that for people out of work that $40 is too much. Later, Cook emphasized that many of those people are ones turning to SYFS for help right now.

Cook and others also noted that the Town would be in dire straights if IT Director Tom LeFlamme took any time off (for vacation, leave or illness) given that he has no back up staff. It was an issue they had raised before the pandemic. With all of the remote work and remote meetings, it’s even more of a concern.

When they meet on Monday, they may discuss a couple of compromises suggested by Advisory members Chelsea Malinowski and Andrew Pfaff. 

Malinowski had voted against the new hires. Last night, she raised the idea of agreeing on a September or October start date. She justified that it would give them all time to work out details to ensure jobs were sustainable. Pfaff suggested that one of the two police officer jobs could be shifted to start in the second half of the year.

Selectman Marty Healey stated early in discussions that he was unwilling to compromise any further in the direction of increasing the selectmen’s recommended budget. He had compromised enough, given that he believed they shouldn’t be increasing taxes at all this year. Advisory’s Tim Martel rebutted that a zero increase budget was only reasonable when Towns make efforts to put aside extra money in Reserve Funds in good years. He pointed out that Southborough hasn’t done that.

Braccio and Rooney agreed that continuing to work towards a consensus before Town Meeting was important.

The Monday night meeting will also go over differences that Advisory has with selectmen’s budget for six departments. Cook said it came down to a difference of $25,000 with $15,000 of that from the Fire department.

Cook agreed to provide selectmen with a spreadsheet before Monday, outlining the issues. They also agreed that a couple of Advisory members may “sit down” with a couple of selectmen to walk through the spreadsheet in advance.

Last night Cook previewed an example. She noted that $800 cut by the Treasurer’s Office would reduce tax bill mailings from four per year to three. After talking to Treasurer Brian Ballantine, Advisory worried that the potential issues caused from the off schedule mailings wasn’t worth the savings.

*Advisory members raised the possibility of pushing off the Fire Chief’s vehicle a few years. That would bring down Advisory’s estimated tax increase figure from 0.98% to 0.85%. If selectmen prevail and make that same postponement, I’m calculating that it could go down to 0.69%. (Cook estimated off the cuff about 0.65%, but I’m guessing that was an error since the difference in Advisory’s figures was a reduction of 0.13%.)

**Updated (6/4/20 8:48 am): Cook informed me that my earlier recap of Advisory’s position was inaccurate:

Advisory is unanimously supportive of adding 2 policemen/women as early as possible. That is in effect September when the first police academy after 7/1 starts.

Advisory is unanimously supportive of adding the PT IT position on 7/1.

Advisory is split 5-2 on adding the FT Youth and Family Services position. But the real story is that two members are actually opposed to the hire period. And therefore to be consistent they did not support a hire date of 7/1.

I’ll add that in last week’s meeting, Malinowski explained that her opposition to the SYFS new hire was the belief that they could better fill the department’s and public’s need by contracting a specialty outside call service and using currently under-utilized Town staff from other departments. Cook said that the Youth Commission and SYFS strongly disagreed, and she didn’t know why their committee should think they know their needs better.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stop Spending June 4, 2020 at 2:13 AM

With the exception of one or two members, this Advisory Committee has it completely backwards with their irresponsible spending recommendations. STOP SPENDING!
During this pandemic and economic crisis, while other towns are cutting taxes and postponing new hires, this BOS and Advisory increases taxes and new hires. When are the taxpayers ever going to get a break? Taxes are too high as it is, before the pandemic! More importantly, this over spending is unsustainable.

https://patch.com/massachusetts/framingham/more-layoffs-furloughs-framingham-mayor-rethinks-budget
More Layoffs, Furloughs In Framingham As Mayor Rethinks Budget
“Mayor Yvonne Spicer has revised a budget submitted to City Council in April, cutting $2.8 million from it.”

This town’s diddling 2% cut exercise is mind bending in how nonsensical and unrealistic this view is, especially in light of State Balanced Budget Laws and actual drops in state tax revenues that fund all towns. All municipalities are “flying in the blind” right now and it is absolutely necessary to cut spending in order to stop from running the town into the ground. With expected increasing expenses, including debt associated with Public Safety Building, combined with expected reductions in state contributions to the town, the town is headed toward insolvency. The BOS and Advisory members pushing for level or spending increases need to be shown the door.

Agree completely with recent comments, especially Whose Side Are You On. Advisory, who do you think you work for? And what planet are you living on? The taxpayers just gave $1m to a developer who states he is worth over $100m to renovate Burnett House (whose genius idea was that?), as well as having taken on new huge operating costs of the oversized Public Safety building to the tune of over $100k per year. BOS/Advisory forgot to mention that to taxpayers.

Did the crime rate suddenly skyrocket so we have to add two new police positions? Is that “making do?” during this pandemic and economic crisis? How did we ever manage to get by all these years?

This project is a series of excesses: too big, too expensive, constructing a carport for cars not owned(?!), $65,000 cabinets, the solar carports (no bid situation, countered by one reader’s multiple examples of how to get it done better on this blog) were the cherry on this ridiculous cake. Let’s not forget every continual push for on and off-budget gimmes, including new personnel to fill this boondoggle, all at salary plus health plus pensions (who gets that anywhere these days??). Can the taxpayers play basketball in the new gym? All of this while the taxpayers, the unemployed, and seniors struggle with ever increasing taxes and other projects go by the wayside. Enough ridiculous overspending.

Incredibly, the town hasn’t even fully funded the longer-term health and benefits obligations for the retired and retiring town employees, benefits that are simply not found in the private sector by the taxpayers footing all these bills. Taxpayers cannot afford all the new debt and the new exorbitant operating costs of Versailles-on-the-Golf-Course, never mind the continual push to fill this oversized project. All of these costs have not been absorbed by taxpayers just yet. And there is a push to spend more?

Importantly, no one, with the exception of a small handful of officials HAVE EVEN REQUESTED, never mind understand, the detailed School Budget which comprises roughly half of the town budget overall. Simply unbelievable and unconscionable.

Do you read the newspaper? Virtually all cities and towns are CUTTING their budgets to align with expected tax revenue reductions. Here are only a few headlines:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/business/virus-state-budgets.html

As Virus Ravages Budgets, States Cut and Borrow for Balance
“Balanced-budget laws are on the books in 49 states, and that means hard choices over cuts and borrowing as help from the federal government remains in limbo.”

https://www.boston.com/news/coronavirus/2020/05/08/massachusetts-state-revenue-drops-over-50-percent-coronavirus

State tax revenue dropped over 50 percent in April. What does that mean for Massachusetts moving forward?
“We’re all flying pretty blind I think.”

https://www.wbur.org/bostonomix/2020/03/18/coronavirus-economic-impact-massachusetts-budget

Pandemic, Recession Forecasts Will Jolt State Budget
“State tax collections in the current fiscal year could fall as much as $500 million below benchmarks due to lost economic activity and the Legislature should act now to prepare for a downturn or the “significant likelihood” of a recession, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said Tuesday.
Calling on lawmakers to quickly revise revenue assumptions, the business-backed foundation said the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will add to existing challenges.”

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2 Mike June 4, 2020 at 9:00 AM

Every year there are increases. And where are people to get the money? And to pay for what services. The liberal school system? But, I guess that is what you want?

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3 southsider June 4, 2020 at 9:21 AM

TM approved those two big items you keep mentioning… we have no one to blame but ourselves…The PS building came in on its budget, i think, and I like how the Burnett House is turning out. I’d rather see the golf course than a batch of new McMansions.
Many homes in town are being snapped up as soon as they hit the market so we must have someting going for us.
A budget increase under one percent sounds pretty good to me, esp in a year where i think we’ve just entered in to new contracts with all our union employees.
Breaking the civil service unions will never be something that starts in Southborough. Poorer towns like Fall River or Fitchburg or Springfield need to lead that charge.
I like living here and my few concerns about how the town is run are relatively minor and tolerable. I’d actually have them spend a bit more and open the Transfer Station on more days… sorry, but if i was in charge, that extra spending would also happen…

Advisory and B of S: this is one taxpaying family that likes how the town runs itself.

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4 Will June 4, 2020 at 1:29 PM

I agree with southsider, and that while no one really enjoys paying more out of our pockets, when you look at the big picture a) it really isn’t that much over a year and b) it helps our community.

As beth has noted before on the blog, school spending is lower than expected, and it appears as though they are trying to save where they can, although obviously it is still a large portion of the budget. As southsider points out, it’s also one of the reasons people are drawn to the town and move here. Perhaps you don’t have children in the system, and not everyone does, but it is a selling point, and their continued success and reputations are important to the town continuing to grow population wise.

While the pandemic has been rough on everyone, the fact is that the increase they seem to be proposing is really not that big in the large scheme of things. The cost of a few nights out to dinner, or 2/3 of a months worth of Starbucks, or any other comparison, shows that it really depends on what we value, and that likely most of us can afford the increase (even during the pandemic) if we think in those terms. Yes, there will be some who have fixed incomes and this is more difficult, but knowing increases are likely in good (or bad) times, means that this would have been an issue regardless, as roads still need to be fixed, equipment purchased, and operating costs covered.

I am not saying it’s perfect, that the BOS or Advisory are doing the best job ever, but to ensure the solvency of the town, and to provide the services people require, I am fine with paying a little more.

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5 A counterpoint view June 4, 2020 at 1:26 PM

In reference to “stop spending”:
A few items of note:
Mayor Spicer is hardly an example by which anyone should run their local government. She is the queen of frivolous spending and raising taxes… look at the water tax in Framingham over the last few years, for example. She is also one of the highest paid in the state. Quite a feat for the job she has done. Ultimately, just about everything she has done, including taking her position, was a mistake for Framingham.

Back to Southborough,
The Public Safety building was LONG overdue, and is slated to house fire and police for the next 50-75 years. It also came in 3 million dollars UNDER budget, if I recall correctly.
Your basketball comment shows how under-informed you are with regard to the new building, as they don’t have a basketball court or even a hoop, for that matter. Something you would know this if you had taken the time to tour the building. The gym is equipped for all public safety personnel to maintain their health and fitness, which has proven to actually save money with regard to paying out for injuries and health problems later down the road. Besides, I think it’s reasonable to expect people in that position to have some level of fitness, should you call for their service. The last thing I’d want is a bunch of overweight town employees showing up to my house, huffing and puffing from walking up a flight of stairs, for example.
And as for the two extra positions, again, it doesn’t seem you’ve been paying attention during town meetings. For years, DECADES, the police have been operating with two patrolman on the road. TWO. The additional bodies are needed to boost that minimum staffing up to three. Think about that… One car crash on Southville Road and ALL of the police officers working are tied up until that incident is resolved. While they are dealing with that, something happens on Fisher Road requiring immediate response. Now what? Sure, we have gotten by, luckily, this long. But let’s get with the times, here. All the surrounding towns are running higher minimum staffing. It’s about providing excellent service to the town while making sure that our officers are safe doing it. Kudos to them for making due with so little for so long.

One thing we can agree on, though, is the Burnett house. Who had that bright idea? I guess the rich didn’t get rich by spending their own money… but by making it sound like a good idea using someone else’s! What a sham.

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6 Stop Spending June 5, 2020 at 11:53 AM

We agree on more than you think. No town official should be paid more than market based compensation. This town has that problem right now with the Town Administrator salary, of recent years renowned discussions. That position’s salary / contract should be bid out and put at market based levels. As a side note on Spicer, she is well educated with advanced degrees and well qualified, and apparently worth it to the voters who voted her in. Framingham has its own long-publicized inside-track, smarmy corruption problem that she inherited, which is not remedied overnight. From Boston out to the suburbs, many towns have similar issues. Isn’t life easier for developers seeking permits when an alleged five-time convicted felon is pushing through your permit and happens to be a family member?

The point is this: during the pandemic and economic crisis, municipalities are cutting back and furloughing, not hiring. This is due to the reduction in revenues and also due to expected lowered reimbursements by the State to towns.

This town has not even paid for the longer-term health and benefits obligations for the retired and retiring town employees, which BTW are benefits that are simply not found in the private sector by the taxpayers footing all these bills. How do you hire two more here and two more there when you have not paid for existing obligations? Just go deeper in the hole and tank the 5 year outlook?

As for the public safety building, everyone agrees it was time for something new. It doesn’t matter that it came in at or under budget when it was an oversized exorbitant boondoggle in the first instance. It still has $65,000 cabinets, solar carports for cars not owned, a gym, and TVs for all. (BTW, the reference to taxpayer basketball playing in a gym was humorous tongue-in-cheek not literal. But there’s nothing wrong with a gym membership elsewhere, like other police departments, including new ones nearby, the rest of America, and the taxpayers paying for this boondoggle.) That said, as one neighbor put it: where’s the pool? Next to the Golf Course, that had to be wrangled away tooth and nail from the same town officials who actively fought conservation restrictions which saved it from developers — and the same deal geniuses who gave $1m taxpayer dollars to the developer claiming to be worth $100m.

Regardless, the taxpayers are stuck with the $100,000 plus operating costs that was never mentioned during the process. More importantly, the debt on this property is about to hit the taxpayer too. That is what is not realized by the average citizen at present.

How can savings be understood or realized if almost no town officials have even requested, never mind studies and understands, the School Budget, which makes up over ½ the town budget? Mind-boggling lapses of accountability and communication to the citizens paying the bills.

There is a lot of debt and unpaid obligations that need to first understood and then brought under control before any more spending happens. One reality check: just spoke with a company that has laid off 70% of its employees and its annual revenue is down 50%. There is a sobering reality associated with this pandemic and its economic fallout. See the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, the local papers. Cities and towns have realized there cannot be pre-pandemic spending. It is simply unsustainable.

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7 beth June 5, 2020 at 12:48 PM

Please understand, I’m not taking a position on what Town budget cuts should/shouldn’t be made.

But I do have to point out an important difference between layoffs by companies and municipalities. Most layoffs by companies are based on protecting profitability. When customer demand is reduced, less resources are generally needed to supply the demand.

Municipalities aren’t meant to function for the purpose of making a profit. And even as income is reduced, it doesn’t necessarily follow that demand for Town resources is reduced. In fact, for some departments the opposite occurs as residents experiencing pay cuts and layoffs look for help. And if the pandemic has caused some workers to temporarily have less work, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be busy soon as the state begins reopening.

It’s easy to say cuts should be made. The hard work is figuring out what cuts can be made in the short term without causing longer term problems for our community, plus how to add resources the community needs and the infrastructure departments need to function without overburdening taxpayers.

I don’t have those answers. I just don’t think it’s simple.

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8 Kelly Roney June 5, 2020 at 6:32 PM

This is so right it bears repeating:

Municipalities aren’t meant to function for the purpose of making a profit.

Ayn Rand’s followers don’t get it, but there’s more to a functioning society than profit-seeking.

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9 Stop Spending June 5, 2020 at 2:00 PM

Making cuts to a budget is not simple.

However, there is no analogy being drawn between private sector cuts and government cuts at all. Private sector cuts and economic crisis are indicators and a reality check.

The point is this: those companies that are shut down, losing money, have no income, or furloughing employees are generating the revenues that pay the taxes that fund the state and the towns. See the article: tax revenue stream to the state fell by 50% in April. The economy and many businesses are not fully open even yet.

https://www.boston.com/news/coronavirus/2020/05/08/massachusetts-state-revenue-drops-over-50-percent-coronavirus

State tax revenue dropped over 50 percent in April. What does that mean for Massachusetts moving forward?
“We’re all flying pretty blind I think.”

The other key point is this: The town is flying in the blind at this budgeting moment in time due to the unknowns in State contributions to the town’s budget. That, coupled with the still on-going pandemic and the economic crisis, means stopping, understanding, and assessing impacts first.

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10 southsider June 6, 2020 at 8:13 AM

I, for one, think it’s pretty obvious that the B of S and Advisory have made honest attempts to do just what is suggested above: stop…understand.. assess. From what I’ve read, all department heads were sent back their originally submitted budgets and asked to review and cut where they could without impacting necessary services. These two groups who manage our town have been meeting weekly for quite some time to put together a much smaller budget than the one prepared pre-pandemic. And it’s clear in the meetings that they’ve been doing research and holding conversations with individual department heads in the times between these formal meetings. I would suggest that they ‘get it’ and continue to applaud their efforts. As businesses re-open, the state’s revenue will increase each month….the large drop of April/May won’t persist… and the majority of our town services aree funded by our own property and excise taxes and those collections are nowhere near as bad at the state’s.

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11 Frank Crowell June 7, 2020 at 10:37 AM

One of the reasons the cuts are so hard is that the town is use to budgets passing where there are always increases. Elected officials become comfortable with professionals they work with and uncomfortable cutting their budgets. If there was a practice of cutting what is not needed or ending programs no longer needed it would be a different story. And of course if we understood why our per student costs were higher than other surrounding communities then we would understand what needs to be cut.

Taxpayers have to force the reform needed. Only way that is done is to vote down a budget – nothing else will work. Taxpayers should not let a crisis go to waste.

On a separate but equally important issue, how are the PILOT negotiations going with St Mark’s and Fay School? Maybe the negotiators should ask how many students, faculty and administrators support large cities defunding their police forces? Then ask if that is something Southborough should look into?

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