Town Meeting Update: Officials grappling with budget demands, may table some expenses to a Fall Special

This winter, the Town’s Finance team and the Board of Selectmen have been hashing out the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to bring to Annual Town Meeting voters. One option recently floated was tabling some capital spending to a Special Town Meeting in the fall. In the meantime, a committee would better research the Town’s anticipated capital expenses* and how to handle them.

As of this week, selectmen and Finance were still unable to come to an agreement on a budget framework for FY21. Unhappy with long term forecasts, selectmen did approve a policy for the FY22 budget. The board voted not to add any new employee positions or hours in FY22 unless new revenue sources are found to offset the cost.

But that budget is more than a year out. For the FY21 budget, the board is still uncertain about how many positions, hours and benefits to add at department head requests. There were also questions about how to handle capital expenses in the pipeline. Selectmen (and likely the Advisory Committee) plan to tackle big budget decisions at a dedicated meeting on February 4th.

I know, it’s pretty standard to see the Town Finance team and selectmen worrying about the budget this time of year. In fact, the projected increase at this time last year was much higher (an alarming 6%). But by the time the budget got to Town Meeting, the projected tax rate increase** was cut down to 2.67%, a figure that the Advisory Chair referred to as cost of living.

Still, selectmen are now faced with a situation the Finance team warned them about last year – that tough times were ahead, especially starting in FY22. Recent debates have focused less on the impact to this year’s projected tax rate and more on the long term impacts.

Earlier this month, selectmen were dismayed by 5 year budget projections that showed the Town would begin to exceed its “levy capacity” in FY22.***

Vice Chair Marty Healey asked Finance to come back with a version that shows what they would need to do to avoid going into the red around the corner. This week, Treasurer Brian Ballantine presented a new version that did that. The new vision lowered the tax rate increase from 4.46% to about 3.61%. (Some uncertainty still remains about this year’s state aid, state charges, the Southborough assessed share of the school budget, etc.) But it required making cuts that selectmen aren’t entirely on board with yet. 

One uncontested change was the Fire Chief’s decision to drop adding a Deputy Chief. Other recommendations by Ballantine and Town Administrator Mark Purple included rejecting the Police Chief’s request to add two full time officers and reducing Youth & Family Services full time assistant request to part time. Finance also cut out some placeholders for “uncertain” capital expenses down the line and slashed the estimate for revamping the Transfer Station to just replace the hopper.

The forecast assumes that Town Meeting voters will approve adding a local meals tax and makes educated guesses on future revenues and charges. To stay under the levy cap, tax rates for FY22 and beyond tax rate would have to be capped at 3.5%. 

At the request of Chair Brian Shea, Ballantine had also prepared a budget forecast that added a 2nd part time position for Youth & Family Services and one of the full time police officer positions. Those additions pushed the budgets to likely exceed levy capacity in FY24 and FY26. The two 5-year forecasts prompted a range of overlapping reactions from selectmen.

Selectman Sam Stivers expressed hope that other revenues and savings would be discovered in time. (One mentioned was potential increased PILOT payments.) He was inclined to add back in more of the cut spending requests made by department heads. Healey and Purple argued against counting on hope. (Later in the meeting, Healey updated that Fay and St. Mark’s boards of trustees were unlikely to commit to a plan for regular PILOT payments. They were more likely to respond to requests to help fund specific expenses related to their mission.)

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio restated concerns most selectmen expressed at a prior meeting – putting off capital expenses could cost the town more in the long run.

Most selectmen voiced desire to fully or partially fund the new police officer positions, though Healey was hesitant. Braccio asked for Ballantine to find out what the FY21 overtime budget would look like if new hires weren’t approved.

After some debate about the long term picture, Healey pointed out a $4M jump in expenses from FY21 to FY22. He noted that he understood that debt expenses played a role. But he was concerned about baking in too many costs this year that would rollover into future years.

Advisory Chair Kathy Cook told selectmen that her committee hadn’t voted on their recommendations. But she thought she knew where they were headed. She said that the Capital Expenses in the pipeline were a big part of the future tax burden. She believed that they should reboot the Capital Budget Committee to research anticipated projects. She indicated that Jason Malinowski (Chair of the Public Safety Committee) was interested in digging into the task.

Cook opined that some shorter term spending might be a waste of money in the long term if the Town made subsequent decisions. One example was maintenance projects for a school when the Town might look at consolidating the four K-8 schools to 3 buildings. She also thought the CBC could come up with some creative solutions.

Another reason for putting off to a meeting in the fall would be to push out the Economic Development Committee’s proposed zoning bylaw. She opined that the committee wouldn’t be ready in time for the March meeting. Given their status, she didn’t think they were prepared to convince 2/3 of voter to approve the Article.

Selectman Dan Kolenda was absent this week. But at the January 7th meeting, he asked Finance to find out if some of the items in the budget that were constant over the years (like small stipends) were really needed or could be eliminated. This week, Ballantine shared that no one was interested in cutting any. Kolenda also argued passionately again to reduce the Open Space Preservation Commission budget by $500, back to it’s FY19 funding level. This week, Ballantine said that the OSPC planned to reach out to the board to make its case directly.

Finance had hoped to come to an agreement on the budget “framework” or some of the staffing requests. Selectmen remained uncertain how to proceed. They opted to postpone big decisions to a dedicated budget meeting on February 4th, with an invitation to Advisory. Cook was optimistic that her committee would be ready with their recommendations by then and able to chime in if asked.

As for the FY22 budget policy, Purple asked selectmen to make the commitment so department heads would be forewarned and plan accordingly.

*Unlike the year to year operating budget, capital expenses are to buy, maintain, or improve the Town’s fixed assets (buildings, vehicles, equipment, or land).

**The actual rate set in the fall turned out to be a decrease by 0.48% but taxes for the average single family home did increase – by 2.86%. (When Finance forecasts tax rates for the next fiscal year, they use the previous year’s assessed property values. But the actual rate set in the fall is based on updated assessed values , which went up this year.)

***The Levy capacity is the amount the Town can raise taxes, to avoid a deficit, without voters overriding proposition 2 1/2 at the ballots.

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4 years ago

I just finished reading The above post, Now I wish I didn’t before bed, sounds like taxes are going up even more AGAIN if all this stuff is approved. when the fire chief dropped adding an assistant chief I thought, Thanks Chief, he cares about our tax burden. Now the Police wants 2 more officers, I am stunned. I guess all I can do is ask the BOS and all fiscal folks to do their best to keep spending within reason .The little guy will no longer be able to afford to live here any more at the rate we are going.

4 years ago
Reply to  Arborist

Do you have any idea how many officers are on each shift? If one major event occurs and then another at the same time, which does happen, are you sure that there are enough officers to cover both events? Would you rather pay the overtime for more officers to come in when this happens instead of have officers readily available? This town has grown a lot with the addition of Madison Place and other developments, the need for more officers has become apparent. Not only for our safety. but for the safety of the officers themselves. If we spread them too thin, what happens when we really need them? What happens when one is injured and there is only 2 on duty, it has happened. I am ok with adding 2 more officers. The little guy can’t afford to live here anymore because of the wasteful spending at the schools. Lets look in the right place when we want to control spending.

4 years ago
Reply to  resident

I am in agreement with Arborist. I think more data is needed. You stated, “If one major event occurs and then another at the same time, which does happen, are you sure that there are enough officers to cover both events? Would you rather pay the overtime for more officers to come in when this happens instead of have officers readily available?” I would need to know how much of a problem this is. Also, how much in overtime are we paying compared the the salaries and benefits of 2 new positions. Also, how much extra police time is Madison Place creating? Can we put pressure on the owners to provide some security detail for their property?

Al Hamilton
4 years ago

The town actually has a committee on the books (appointed by the BOS and Advisory) called the Capital Budget Committee. I believe it has been dormant for a number of years.

Al Hamilton
4 years ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

My Bad, it appears that the committee was voted out of existence in 2013

Frank Crowell
4 years ago

There is a small ray of hope……… Fay School and St Mark’s are “more likely to respond to requests to help fund specific expenses related to their mission.” Tabulate the expenses incurred by the town: schools, fire and police departments. That is the expense incurred by Southborough to support their mission. If this is already happening, there is some real progress occurring. Of course I’ve been looking for good news on this front for a long time, but “hope springs eternal.”

Al Hamilton
4 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell


I am afraid this is very weak tea from a well used tea bag. Every time the Selectmen go hat in hand to the schools the reply is “We wont make any long term commitments but might, out of the goodness of our hearts, fund some project that benefits us”

That has pretty much been the reply for as long as I can recall. Nothing will change unless we change the rules.

4 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

“Please Sir, I want some more?” It didn’t work for Oliver Twist either.

Al Hamilton
4 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

If there is a fall special, perhaps that is the time to put stripping the schools of their zoning exemptions back on the table.

If you want to move a large immovable object a lever is very handy.

Frank Crowell
4 years ago

Thank you both for setting me straight. I will re-set my expectations to the usual educational PILOT contribution which means they will not cover expenses incurred. I wonder how many more Southborough residents (as well as many other MA communities) will need to get outraged over our subsidizing their programs before the State House takes action. All could be resolved if Fay and St Mark’s would just do the right thing.

4 years ago

Resident: please don’t get me wrong, I am all for the police and do appreciate all that they do, but what’s the limit these days, sure the town is getting more populated every year. you mentioned Madison place for one, where does all that tax money go? When the town allowed that place to be built they should have asked for funding for more public safety personal, other towns do it all the time, When The former western nurseries development in Hopkinton was purposed that was a barraging chip and I do believe tons of money went to the town for that purpose .someone is not watching the store here. And if public safety officials find themselves shot of help on occasion they can always request mutual aid from surrounding towns, It happens every day in the USA .

wake up!
4 years ago

What has happened to the discussion over proposed real estate rate tax for fiscal 2021? The last word seemed to be some sort of special Town Meeting in the Fall of 2020. Since Town departments are required to have their budgets submitted prior to the regular annual Town Meeting, originally scheduled for March 28th, what is the current number?

Let’s try to get this addressed well in advance of the as yet undetermined fall TM.

What are we waiting for? Why would voters approve or withhold approval for budget monies without knowing what it will cost them? Presumably, the Town is looking for voter response in the regular TM, postponed from March 28th.

Someone needs to provide the projected impact of the BOS approved (read: rubber stamped) Town budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

Is everyone sleeping?

4 years ago

How much is the golf course costing the town? That might be an area to look at. A drop in the bucket perhaps, but every bit helps. And, with all this dire news, the idea of installing sidewalks in a town with rural character should be shelved.

4 years ago
Reply to  JMO

Couldn’t disagree more. Recent events have shown just how important local infrastructure is.

There was a recent thread on Sobo FB page where virtually every road in town was listed by residents as a death trap for foot and bicycle traffic. We can’t expect cops on every street… sidewalks may be the better alternative. With the closure of parks and playgrounds (and even open spaces) the lack of sidewalks has never been more glaring.

I really hope it moves conversation forward.

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