Annual Town Meeting votes No on budget decrease, Yes on specific increase

Voters opposed a resident's call to reduce the overall budget by 1% and agreed to another resident's call to fund more emergency communications dispatchers.

Above: Voters who took part in Town Meeting were overwhelmingly against shaving 1% off the Town’s recommended budget. (image from SAM video)

On Saturday, Town Meeting voters shot down one resident’s pitch to shave 1% off the overall budget. Soon after, they agreed with another resident’s push to improve public safety by increasing the budget to hire two more dispatchers.

Budget decrease request discussion

Resident Tim Fling moved to trim the “cumulative” budget by 1%, which he calculated as $587,747.54.* He said the adjustment should be determined “at the discretion” of the Select Board and Advisory Committee. He hoped they could find cuts other than to personnel.

Fling argued that with property values having gone up quite a bit over the past few years, there have been tax impacts. That negatively effected his mortgage escrow. He called for officials to:

do the same thing everybody like me did in town to bring our budgets back a little bit, and then fit with in that 1% reduction to help just overall our tax base.

Select Board member Kathy Cook said that the board and Advisory had worked diligently on the budget for over four months to get the increase down “to something that looks like inflation”. She followed that it was unrealistic to think a $600K reduction wouldn’t cover personnel.

Cook noted that most of the budget is employees salary and benefits, and that raises are required through collaborative agreements.

Advisory member Tim Martel opposed the motion. He highlighted that about 2/3 of the budget is for the public schools. He said the cut “would impact the remaining third of the budget in a very harmful manner.”

Roger Challen, a School Committee member (but speaking as a private citizen) argued that the motion shouldn’t even be allowed:

We’ve had meeting after public meetings where budgets have been discussed and there’s nothing wrong with coming to any of those meetings and having a question about the budget asking at those meetings um what would happen if you reduced your budget. But to but to do it in this way I think is totally inappropriate.

Town Wire Inspector Jim Colleary said that he isn’t paid out of the budgets, so it wouldn’t impact him. But he stressed that the cost of labor in the market is going up. He noted that due to the Town has had trouble hiring a DPW Truck Driver and the Fire department is understaffed because the Town doesn’t want to pay enough. Now officials were starting to make the necessary changes. He noted:

If it gets to the point where maybe it’s this retired guy from a full-time job can’t afford to stay here then maybe I got to look for Alternatives but that’s the real life world we live in. . .

I think the Town of Southborough has moved somewhat in the right direction with their budgets to understand the problems this community face in the future.

Patricia Burns Fiore asked for clarity on the budget increase and was told it was in Adisory’s handout at the table.

Stan Moschella said that he didn’t support the amendment but indicated he didn’t think that the handout on the table was sufficient notice and information for voters. He said he had reached out to Advisory for the budget report “about a week ago” and received a draft form that he was able to spend a couple of days going through. He thought the budget was “very reasonable” but:

you just can’t put it on the table 5 minutes before the meeting and expect people to know what it is.

There were other voices in opposition, while none vocally supported the motion. In the end, it overwhelmingly failed.

Police dispatch budget increase approved

Former Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf clarified that her request to add funding for two additional members of the emergency communications dispatch team:

has nothing to do with the the future discussion on any Regional dispatch this has to do with today’s Department that serves your community. I felt strongly this is a decision that the public should make. . . which I believe belongs in this forum

Phaneuf described the dispatch situation as vulnerable. Citing discussions in prior public meetings and referring to reports, she highlighted that if one of the Town’s current full time dispatchers leaves or has a long term absence, the part time personnel can’t be compelled to work overtime to fill shifts.

Several commenters spoke for and against Phaneuf’s motion or asked questions. The comments below are just highlights.

Select Board and Advisory described a study they plan to have conducted to evaluate the Police staffing needs. And they are exploring potentially entering a regionalized service. Town Meeting voters will be updated at both at the September Special Town Meeting. Cook asked the hall to give them time.

But Phaneuf and others drew attention to the fact that even if the Town pursues entering a regional dispatch, voters could oppose it. And even if it does move forward, that could take years.

Former Select Board member Lisa Braccio argued in favor of Phaneuf’s request:

I sat on the Select Board when this discussion came up of regional dispatch and at the time we were shown some deficiencies and some liabilities. . .
Dispatch is one of the most important departments we have here if your family’s facing a crisis

Braccio referred to a time when multiple emergencies were taking place at the same time, including a “Mayday call”. She also noted the need for dispatchers to help people in distress (perhaps needing instructions for CPR) at the same time as dispatching emergency personnel.

Select Board member Al Hamilton voiced a different view than the majority of his board. He pointed to last year’s Town Meeting votes against entering regional dispatch agreements. He said that if follows that the body is responsible for properly staffing the department. He argued that there is no reason to have a fire department or police department if we don’t have a dispatch operation.

Resident Matt Probst said that he felt last year’s vote against regionalizing was really about the superfund site that had been identified in Westborough, rather than the general concept.

John Butler highlighted that Phaneuf’s request was 2/10 of 1%. And if the Select Board can’t find the staff or sticks with a decision not to hire “we’ll just get the money back next year as free cash.” But approving the ask gives them the funds if needed.

The majority of the hall agreed to up the budget by $131,880 for salaries and $44,824 for benefits.

IThat raised the overall budget under Article 5 to $62,187,188. After transfers from certain Town funds, $58,979,980 of that will need to be “raised and appropriated”.

*Fling noted that his dollar figure was “my math”, and that he would stick to it, although it was “slightly different” than 1% of the number Select Board member Kathy Cook stated for the Budget Article. Cook’s motion specified that the budget would be $62,010,578, some of which would be covered by funds transferred from specific Town funds and the remaining $58,803,276 would be “raised and appropriated” through the tax levy. That number later was increased to reflect the increases for Policed Dispatch salaries and benefits.

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John Butler
18 days ago

You report correctly “Fling argued that with property values having gone up quite a bit over the past few years, there have been tax impacts.” However, people should know that this is not how our taxes work. There is no connection between the property price inflation we have seen and our taxes. If property value inflation doubled the value of all houses in Town, from one year to the next, but Town Meeting voted the same dollar amount in taxes as the prior year, your tax bill would be exactly the same from year to year. The tax rate in that case (tax per thousand in valuation) would be automatically set to half of what it had been the year before. Property values are used only to determine how the total amount to be raised is to be divided among the taxpayers, and have no connection to how much tax is to be raised. In short, your taxes are determined by your vote in Town Meeting, not by property value inflation. What he should have said was that “Town Meeting has been voting tax increases that I think are too large, so I want us to vote a lower tax increase this year.”
Correcting his misstatement does not say anything about the merit of his basic idea that taxes should be lower. I have long been of the view that a more vigorous debate on Town Meeting floor about tax levels would be healthy. So I want to commend Fling for trying to open such a discussion, even though some aspects of the form in which he did so were not ideal.

John Butler
18 days ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

You make a good point. If your house value rises faster than the value of all the Town properties as a whole, in percentage terms, then your taxes will rise faster than any increased taxation voted by Town Meeting. This can happen if you make improvements, changing your valuation, or if some other properties, such as commercial ones, decline in value while yours rises. The opposite is also true.

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