MWDN: Southborough selectmen comfortable with reduced budget role

Coming up with budget proposals to bring to Town Meeting each April has often been a long, drawn-out, process: endless meetings, haggling, revision after revision. This year, selectmen hope to streamline the process by giving more budgeting authority to new Town Administrator Mark Purple.

Reports the Metrowest Daily News:

Town officials Monday planned to have less involvement in preparation of the budget this year, agreeing to let new Town Administrator Mark Purple assume more responsibility.

“That’s why he’s making the big bucks,” selectmen Chairman John Rooney said with a chuckle.

Rooney said he’s confident Purple’s hire and evolving job responsibilities will lead to a smoother process in time.

The town is in the midst of increasing Purple’s authority through a bylaw, and Rooney suggested that Purple have a larger role in budgeting than his predecessor as a sort of “dry run.”

Will it work? As someone who has attended her fair share of budget meetings, I certainly hope so! Read more details in this article by the MWDN.

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Al Hamilton
10 years ago

I am cautiously hopeful that we can improve our budget process. Far far too much time is spent focused on the municipal budgets. They are important but far too little time is spent focused on the 600 lb gorilla driving our taxes. That is our two school budgets which consume about 2/3 of our tax dollars.

In the past these have been habitually under scrutinized because they are late and opaque. To be fair the Advisory committee has a much finer level of granularity in the Municipal budgets making recommendations of specific department budgets that can vary from close to $2,000,000 to $100. In the case of the schools there is no such granularity only the top number. The School Committee and Superintendent have complete discretion on how to spend the monies once approved.

Still the Advisory Committee should be pushing much harder on reviewing the school budgets and in particular addressing the 3 vs 4 school issue. Our unit labor costs in our schools is likely to rise another 7% this year (exclusive of benefits) so even in the wake of declining enrollments we will need to make sure that the rest of the system is operating at peak efficiency just to afford our labor contracts.

John Butler
10 years ago

Al Hamilton says that Advisory Committee “should be pushing much harder on reviewing the school budgets”. As one of the liaisons from Advisory to the Schools last year I feel that citizens need to be aware that, whatever the merits of Al’s suggestion, the School Committee has been uniquely uncooperative, even with those of us who have a long tradition of supporting the school budget. This was all carefully documented for the public here last year and need not be rehashed now. The point is that the schools have succeeded in inhibiting scrutiny by non-cooperation. Some may say that there are laws, such as the public records laws and the Town bylaws that prevent withholding requested information, but, in fact we depend upon cooperation. When we didn’t get it, I for one, had no taste for the additional stress involved in attempting legal enforcement. The remedy remains with the voters, but until they care enough to wield their power, or the school committee voluntarily changes their ways, voters should not expect any “pushing harder”. (I should add that I don’t have any reason to believe that there is any “smoking gun”, withheld information that would yield material changes in budgeting.) As always, I speak only for myself in this, not for the Advisory Committee, but I think it is a fair summary of the situation.

Elder
10 years ago

Mr. Butler and Mr. Hamilton, If Advisory’s role is to advise and make recommendations at town meeting on town budgets, and if according to Mr. Butler, Advisory is not going to “push any harder” and further scrutinize the school budgets, then I take it this must mean that Advisory will not be supportive of the school budgets at town meeting. That also means, I think, that 75% of the town’s money and how it is being spent is not being scrutinized by Advisory. I think this is a dangerous way for Advisory to function, only looking at how 25% of our money is being spent. Isn’t this in violation of a law for Advisory to give up on reviewing the school spending? Who will review it if Advisory doesn’t or isn’t willing?

John Butler
10 years ago

Elder,
I am not going to speak for the Advisory Committee but I am going to clarify my remarks for you. Mr. Hamilton called not for our normal review, but for “pushing harder.” I stated my view that when we have tried to do so, our efforts have been thwarted. This does not imply that our normal review is inadequate for us to make sound recommendations. Nor does it imply anything about future positions of Advisory Committee with respect to future school budgets. Further I stated my view that more information would probably not result in material changes to budget recommendations. Obviously this is based on the review that we actually do, with the information that we have, some of it from the State. However, I think that even if “pushing harder” would merely confirm, or mostly confirm, the same result, we should nevertheless have the full cooperation of all boards and committees. As the budget placing the highest demand on taxpayers, the school committee should ensure that everything regarding their costs and budget are readily open to public scrutiny with free and open dialog. They should invite scrutiny. This is the surest way to underwrite ongoing public support. On the other hand, in the long term, the approach they have taken in the recent past will endanger the strong support that the schools have had. Such a result would be bad for the school system and the taxpayers.

Matthew
10 years ago

I’m a newcomer to this topic so forgive me if I am repeating questions or asking what is obvious to others.
Can the Advisory Committee even view the budget or are they blocked from making recommendations?
Either way is unacceptable so please clearly state what the process is for changing this.
Any change should also include input on negotiating teacher contracts and salaries. I am still a bit tweaked that anyone got a raise in the worst economic period in my lifetime when I took a 14% pay cut and freeze and was happy to have a job while 1/3 of my office lost theirs.

Al Hamilton
10 years ago
Reply to  Matthew

Matthew

The budgets and their work products are public records and any person is entitled to see them. Expect to ask more than once and be ignored/stalled.

I share your aggravation at the 7%+ raises that have been given out all during the down turn when private sector wages (where most tax dollars come from) were stagnant at best.

To understand how that happened you need first to understand that the deck is heavily stacked against taxpayers.

First, unlike other union contracts, the School Labor contracts are not voted on by Town Meeting. The School Committees have the sole authority to approve the contracts. It is typical in the negotiation process for the school committees to agree in secret to publicly support the deal they make. So, the deal is done before the public gets any input.

Second, the Teachers Unions are very very strong in this state. The make the Teamsters look like choir boys. Frankly, I do not think we have a negotiation team that is willing to stand up to them.

Finally, my impression of financial management in our school system is less than flattering. When I first brought up the issue of the 7% raises there was broad denial by the school committees and Superintendent even though the data was publicly available on the web and the source of the data was the Superintendents office. Frankly, I do not think that the costs of the contracts were ever considered in the negotiation process.

We are stuck with the contracts we have even though we did not vote for them, we voted for the people who run the schools. The only way we can change this situation in the medium term is to elect different school committee members.

John Butler
10 years ago

Matthew,
“Can the Advisory Committee even view the budget…” Yes, Advisory Committee receives proposed budgets before they come to Town Meeting for a vote. “are they blocked from making recommendations?” No the Committee always does make a recommendation.

The issue arose here because Mr. Hamilton said here that we don’t spend enough time, proportionally, on the school budget and that we should “push harder” and investigate the 3 vs. 4 schools question. My response was that, in my experience, when we have tried that, such as last year, our efforts were thwarted by the School Committee, which was not forthcoming with information we requested. Even though I don’t personally believe that this would result in any very different recommendation, Mr. Hamilton’s suggestion has been difficult to implement, and ought not be difficult, in my opinion.

Lastly, regarding “input on teacher contract and salaries” your choice, if you don’t like what we have, is to elect different school committee members who may negotiate results more to your liking. You cannot affect teacher contract salary levels via Town Meeting, although you could, indirectly reduce total spending on salaries, probably, by reducing the school budget at Town Meeting. I want to be clear that I am not saying that I believe our teacher salary levels are inappropriate. I’m just trying to answer your questions.

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