Advisory and Selectmen to hash out Budget differences Tuesday

Above: Last week, Advisory went through figures from the 2% version of the budget approved by Selectmen. This Tuesday night, they’ll try to find common ground with selectmen on the areas where they disagree. (image cropped from SAM video, click to enlarge)

A week from Saturday, Southborough Annual Town Meeting voters will be asked to decide on the Town’s budget for July 2020 through June 2021. Town officials still aren’t in agreement on what that budget should be. That may change tomorrow, when the Advisory Committee and Board of Selectmen “meet”*.

The final compromise budget is likely to represent a less than 2% tax increase for average Southborough households. But while selectmen recently approved a 0.85% or less increase, last week the majority of Advisory members disagreed with some decisions behind the lower figure.

Members of both the BOS and Advisory are especially motivated to try to find a consensus position in advance of Town Meeting this year. Trying to avoid a budget battle on Town Meeting floor is always a goal of the two groups. This year, both have pointed to concerns about Covid-19 and vulnerable voter populations as an additional reason to be on the same page. Still, that may be a challenge given some officials’ stances leading into Tuesday’s joint meeting.

The disparity between boards comes down to two main issues: 1) selectmen’s cautious handling of new hire requests; 2) a budget cutting exercise that some Advisory members have characterized as arbitrary. 

2021 New Hires

After much debate, selectmen voted 3-2 to freeze all new hires in the new fiscal year to January 1st. The rationale was to avoid having to lay off new hires if the Town’s finances are in worse condition that projected. The majority of selectmen also rejected a request to upgrade IT’s new hire request from part-time to full time.

Advisory voted to support hiring a full time position for IT and to start all four new hires on July 1st. The other new hires are a full time administrative support person for Youth & Family Services and two police officers.

It wasn’t clear last week what impact either board’s decisions would have on the projected tax rate increases.

2% Budget Exercise

In April, selectmen asked the Town Finance Team to show them versions of the budget capped at a 0% tax increase and a 2% increase. For the 2% version, departments and committees (with a few exceptions) were asked to cut their most recent budget requests for FY21 by 2%. Selectmen voted last Tuesday to support the “2% version” of the budget.

Last week, Advisory member John Rooney argued to fellow board members that the exercise undermined the budgeting process. He said that departments had been asked that winter to bring Advisory their “very sharpened pencil budget”, they complied and budgets were voted on. Now they were asked to cut from those budgets. He asserted it would impact Town services. He furthered that the savings per individual taxpayer would be too small to be worth it. 

Going through the cuts approved by selectmen, Advisory did find that some of the cuts made sense and were even supported by Department heads.

Advisory Chair Kathy Cook posited that when the cuts made by departments exceeded 2% it showed that they likely didn’t think they need the money. Where the budgets were exactly 2% she presumed that they didn’t have extra to cut. In practice, they appeared to decide there were a few exceptions to those rules.

While they didn’t take their official vote last week, members voiced their positions, indicating a 4-2 split. The majority opposed making cuts through the “arbitrary” exercises. Instead they rejected the “2% cuts” as a whole, but supported adding back in some of the cuts. The net result was adding close to $140,000 back to the FY21 budget. 

Members differentiated the cuts they supported as money that believe shouldn’t have been in the budget in the first place. the biggest of those was an $8,000 reduction from the Economic Development Committee from a budget that Advisory opined earlier in the budget season was too large.

Dissenting members Chelsea Malinowski and Andrew Dennington disagreed on some of the items the others wanted to “add back”. They opined that making cuts was important given the economic climate and sacrifices that others were making. Malinowski also pushed that the over $60,000 Advisory wanted to add back to Police and Fire budgets were cuts the chiefs told her were manageable. And she stressed that given the amount of money (and jobs) that the school cut from their budgets, the Town should be doing the same.

Cook and Malinowski plan to put together two versions of a budget for Advisory’s official vote. One will represent the overall rejection of the 2% exercise. The other will include additional budget cuts that Malinowski believes should be made.

This Tuesday, Advisory members will vote to take their official position on the budget. Following the vote, they will join the Board of Selectmen for a joint meeting to “resolve” differences.

Miscellaneous capital expense delays

In other decisions, Advisory supported putting off a few more capital expenses based on recommendations from the Capital Committee and the Superintendent of Northborough and Southborough Schools.

Cook said that Superintendent Greg Martineau clarified that the boiler for Finn School isn’t needed this year and should be fine for 5-7 years. That’s project would have required Southborough to borrow $85,000 with some of that payment coming in FY22.

The Capital Committee recommended pushing the $60,000 purchase of a new Fire Chief vehicle out another 2-3 years.

*As with all public board/committee meetings these days, they will meet up via zoom, not in person. Click here for the schedule and agendas for Tuesday night’s meetings.

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whose side are you on?
3 years ago

Does the Advisory Committee work for the Town of Southborough or for the voters, citizens and taxpayers of Southborough? It sounds as though some of the members are Town employees, voting to spend ever more money. We, the taxpayers are not pleased with this! You are supposed to be providing some sort of representation for us.

Your goal is not to preserve jobs, approve any and all increases, etc. Let’s show some discipline and control over the Town’s budget. Millions of people are unemployed. Those who are fortunate enough to receive unemployment benefits will see those end in a few months.

State and Federal support will most likely be curtailed. Now is the time to show some discipline and curtail the spending!

We are already spending a significant percentage of our tax bills paying off debts the Town unwisely took on for such projects as the Beals Farm ($5M) and the Burnett house ($1M). How many years will it take to retire that debt load?

If the Police and Fire Chiefs “can live with” the budget cuts they’ve submitted, what are you thinking by trying to add the money back?

If we don’t want a budget battle at the ATM, then now is the time to show some real fiscal discipline. Families have to live within their own budgets, why not the Town? If the money is not there (and it’s not – and it isn’t going to be), do not spend it!

3 years ago

Any manager “..can live with..” any budget s/he is given. What’s not specified and what I think Mr. Rooney ( and others on Advisory ) asserted was that the department heads were already told quite emphatically to submit bare bones budgets. So, does “living with” a budget curtail services that the department heads thought were absolutely necessary when they prepared their bare bones budgets? Would it impact the longer term efficiency of the department if more funds were cut from their bare bones submission? Those seem like valid questions/challenges for Mr. Rooney and Ms. Cook to ask, especially in light of the rather immaterial difference restoring those cuts make to our tax bills. It’s not the last $40 that hurts, it’s the first $10K+ but that’s a price we all are willing to pay to live in our wonderful town. WSAYO also got me to wondering if the unemployment numbers in Southborough are available?

Flying in the Blind
3 years ago

Time for change. With the exception of one or two members, this Advisory Committee has it completely backwards with their irresponsible spending recommendations. STOP SPENDING!

It is time for these members to move on and take their bad irresponsible advice with them. Time for change and new talent on this committee. The 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. Those members pushing for level or spending increases need to be shown the door.

Agree completely with 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. 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:

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.”

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.”

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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