This week, the Board of Selectmen was updated on the preliminary budget for FY22. As is typical this time of year, the projected tax increase is much higher than officials or voters will want to approve. But with small revenue growth and Town services that the public still (or increasingly) rely on, the situation feels grimmer than usual.
The early pass at a budget would translate to a 9.02% property tax increase.
Treasurer Brian Ballantine asked if the Board had a goal the Finance Team should target for limiting the increase. The board’s consensus was targeting a figure at this stage would be arbitrary. Chair Marty Healey called for an increase “as low as possible without impacting important services”. That was a sentiment that appeared to be shared.
The Board agreed to focus on finding cuts in the Operating Budget. At this point, they aren’t looking to cut items in the Capital Expense pipeline for this year.
The Capital Expenses are shown as more than doubled from last year. But, they are only responsible for a 1.78% increase in taxes.
Selectmen referred to the fact that Capital expenses have often been kicked down the road multiple years. In the past they noted that delays sometimes created larger long term costs. Last spring, the Board appointed a committee to study reducing, prioritizing, and recommending better timing for the Town’s Capital expenses. That Capital Planning Committee has been putting in a great deal of work this year. Selectmen indicated they didn’t want to undercut the Committee’s efforts.
[Editor’s Note: As I shared yesterday, the Capital Planning Committee is currently recruiting new members with construction or engineering experience.]
On Tuesday night, Selectman Brian Shea said that when they go over the Capital figures with voters, they’ll need to make clear how much of an anomaly the upcoming fiscal year might be.
As for the Town’s proposed Operating Budget, departments’ requests are shown as only a 4.44% increase over last year. Yet, that budget was blamed in the meeting for a more than 7% projected tax increase. It appears to stem from a revenue situation that puts an increased burden on Southborough taxpayers to foot the bill.
Ballantine explained that each 1% tax increase is the equivalent of $400K in expenses. Lowering the tax increase to less than 5% would require shaving $1.6M from the proposed budget. Board members wanted to learn more about what service and personnel tradeoffs cutting proposed budgets would entail.
Healey advised the Finance Team to go back to “high ticket” departments and tell them “we may not be able to live with” their requested budgets. He asked to find out what it would look like if they cut back their budgets to a 2%, 5% or 0% increase. Selectman Sam Stivers opined that from what he’s observed in meetings, 0% would be too draconian this year. They landed on 2, 5, and 7% increases for now.
Ballantine had also asked if there were any departments that Finance should leave alone. Healey suggested that pressuring departments with only $10 – 40K budgets to make cuts didn’t make sense. Though, at some point they may need to look at what they are spending on. Stivers said that his “sacred cow” was the Public Health Department. He referred to recent budget issues and indicated he supported the path they were on.
Selectmen Chelsea Malinowski asserted that every department was fair game. She opined that they need to be strategic about long term solutions and everyone needed to be team players. She also asked for Finance to break out for each budget anything new since the last year (e.g., new services or personnel hours).
Malinowski asked if there were any new staff positions in the budgets. She reminded that the Board had warned no new positions should be added unless departments were able to identify a new revenue source to offset them. Ballantine and Town Administrator Mark Purple said that they believed the only new “FTEs” were for Public Health and the Town Clerk’s office.
The Board agreed that they would like to meet with the Advisory Committee sometime soon to get their take on the budget situation.
You can look at the preliminary figures presented at Tuesday night’s meeting here.