This week the Board of Selectmen and the Advisory Committee agreed to hold a Special Town Meeting in the fall on several capital Expense items. References were also made to using the meeting for a planned zoning Article on the Downtown Business Village.
Tuesday’s BOS meeting focused on the budget to be voted on at next month’s Annual Town Meeting. While the operating budget for Fiscal Year 2021 will be on the Warrant, many big capital items will be pushed off.
Selectmen and Advisory hope the delay will be to good effect thanks to anticipated work from a yet-to-be-formed Capital Budget Committee. BOS Vice Chair Marty Healy said that the committee, which had been “moribund for the past several years” had done terrific work for the Town for decades. He hoped they could reinvigorate the committee to do a sprint in time for a fall meeting.
Advisory Committee Chair Cathy Cook stressed that problems with the long term forecast are primarily rooted in planned capital spending. She anticipated that the new committee would be able to “come back with very strong, well thought out recommendations on what we should do with capital”.
Healey indicated that he would like the new committee to start this month or early March. But there was no discussion at the meeting about how the new committee would be created, charged, and appointed.
The previous “Capital Committee” was dissolved by Town Meeting voters in 2013, at the request of selectmen. The Article called to delete the relevant sections of the Town Code, pitching selectmen’s desire to replace the committee with:
an internal Capital Committee comprised of the Town Administrator, Town Accountant, Finance Director, and other members as deemed appropriate by the Board of Selectmen
Cook previewed that one of the biggest things she believed the new committee would look at would be the potential closing of a school, possibly Woodward. Don’t expect that to be on the Warrant this fall. Cook said that the School Committee was willing to take a new look at the situation, but it would be a longer term discussion.
Other options to be considered would be ways to pay for some capital projects using Community Preservation Act funding, leasing instead of buying, etc.
The Finance team wasn’t expecting a vote on a final budget this week. Early in the presentation, Treasurer Brian Ballantine referred to the budget as “a snapshot in time”. It was an acknowledgement that more details of the budget were still sure to be “tweaked”.
The point of the meeting was to get selectmen to agree on a budget “framework”. They did. The board voted to support a bigger operating and capital budget than the one recommended by the Finance team last night. They voted to add in three expenses – each in favor of a “public safety” need.
The Advisory Committee has yet to vote on the final recommendation they will make to Annual Town Meeting.
On Tuesday, Selectmen unanimously* agreed that Youth & Family Services made its case for replacing the recommended 2 part time admin positions with one full time admin. Referring to reported increases by police on their responses to domestic disturbances and incidents related to mental health, Selectman Sam Stivers said that he views SYFS as a public safety department.
The board was also compelled by Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus’ pitch that 3 patrol officers are needed on staff each shift. He described safety issues for officers when they have to respond to a situation without needed support and the other patrol car is on the other side of Town. To avoid an excessive use of overtime that is wearing on officers, he said that 2 new full time officers were needed. (The Police request was also supported by a “straw poll” by Advisory members.)
In a 3-1 split*, selectmen approved adding the purchase of a new Fire pumper truck to the capital items to be voted on this spring. Fire Chief Stephen Achilles said that the almost 20 year old reserve pumper is near the end of its expected life, and getting a new one built takes about a year. He further justified that a reserve truck isn’t just backup for a 2nd/3rd incident. It is also sometimes the primary truck when the other truck is being serviced.
Since the board’s votes didn’t align with the budget presented by Treasure Brian Ballantine, it’s not yet clear what the new tax rate impact will be. Even once it is determined, that will still be a gray area at Annual Town Meeting on March 28th.
The version Finance recommended if selectmen chose to postpone some capital items called for a 2.34% tax rate increase in the spring. But that would come with a certain increase of an unknown amount to be determined at the fall special. The alternate recommended version (that didn’t postpone capital expenses) would have required about a 3.46% tax rate increase. That was before the Selectmen added to operating and capital expenses.
Prior to selectmen’s vote, Cook told selectmen that she believed that Advisory’s version was close to the Finance version. She said that Finance was aware of small “discrepancies” Advisory had with the recommended budget. She also noted that while the Town needs to protect public safety, officials also have a fiduciary responsibility.
The Advisory Chair opined that tax increases should be kept down to about what people’s incomes go up. She followed that Social Security payments only increased 1.6% last year. She emphasized that she keeps hearing residents complain that if taxes keep going up they won’t be able to afford to live here anymore.
*Chair Brian Shea was unable to attend the meeting, so selectmen votes were based on the remaining four members.