Budget Work Progressing, Capital a Perennial Challenge
By Gregory T. Federspiel
While bigger headlines both nationally and locally are garnering attention, the work on a proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins this coming July continues apace. A preliminary FY22 budget was presented to the Selectmen and the Finance Committee in December. Both are now going through the numbers line by line with the goal of finalizing the proposed budget come early March. Similarly, the School Committee is working through their proposed FY22 budget for the regional school district. Voters will have the final say at the Annual Town Meeting (which may have to be delayed again due to COVID.)
The Town’s operating budget is relatively stable and is manageable within the confines of the limits of Proposition 2 ½. The possible exception for a significant change is the future of the Fire Department as we continue to struggle with a much-reduced call fire fighter rooster. The bigger budget challenges we face come from the School District and our capital needs.
Most of the cost of education is connected to personnel. A typical teacher union contract builds in 3.5% annual increases as staff move up through the step and column system based on years of experience and degrees earned. Compounding this situation is state aid not keeping pace with these increases causing localities to have to pick up an ever-increasing percentage of the total cost. The District often gets by for a number of years with asking for an increase on either side of 3% while trimming costs, being creative with staff arrangements and making program cuts when necessary. We have been in a pattern of doing this for 8-10 years, then having a fairly large override as a revenue correction and repeating. The question arises as to whether there is a better way.
On the capital front, we have significantly boosted the amount we are spending annually on infrastructure projects and other capital needs in the last few years. We are playing catch-up on a large backlog of deferred maintenance needs. We are making progress, in part by increasing the amount of an annual capital exclusion vote by the same amount as our excluded debt payments are declining. While this prevents tax rates from declining, it also prevents the tax rate from increasing as we offset a higher capital exclusion with lower town (non-school) debt exclusion payments.
The Town’s capital improvement plan calls for expending at least $3 million a year on a cash basis on infrastructure improvements and large equipment replacement needs. The focus is on replacing vehicles on a prescribed schedule, installing new water and sewer pipes, repaving roads and sidewalks, and updating town facilities. We hold an option on the Cornerstone Church as a possible Senior Center which we envision purchasing using reserve funds and upgrading using donated funds. Longer term we face the need for large investments as we deal with sea-level rise and the need for major upgrades to our water and sewer plants. If we can hold off for 12 or so years, we will have fully funded our retirement liabilities (pension and health insurance) as well as remaining town debt, freeing up considerable funds for these longer-term needs.
A few of the more note-worthy projects proposed for the FY22 capital budget include matching funds for the rebuilding of the floats at Tuck’s Point, engineering work for a possible new turf field at Sweeney Park, replacing the old water line on lower School Street and funds to begin the design process for a possible new DPW garage at the existing compost site off upper School Street.
The proposed new floats at Tuck’s Point are being designed in anticipation of sea level rise and a renovated Rotunda. Instead of being held in place by an anchor system, the new floats will be attached to pilings. These pilings must be sized to handle storm surges and rising sea levels and, similar to the pilings installed at Reed Park, will take a bit of getting used to. We hope the bulk of the funds needed for the project will come from a state grant. Community Preservation funds are proposed for our local match.
Efforts to create more useful sports fields in town continue with the top priority emerging from a recent planning effort that Park and Recreation undertook being the creation of a multi-purpose turf field at Sweeney Park. Funds for the engineering of the project were taken out of this year’s budget as we worked to reduce expenses due to the pandemic. The funds, 50% from the Community Preservation Fund, and 50% from the general fund are proposed for FY22.
The next major waterline project is the proposed replacement and enlargement of the watermain on School Street that is a mainline to the town system.
One of the Town’s oldest and most tired facility is the DPW garage off Pleasant Street. A better location for such a facility is the current compost site off Upper School Street. Funds are being requested to start the feasibility and design process for a possible new garage, freeing up the current location for new uses (cemetery expansion, housing or athletic field.)
Complete budget details are available on the Town’s site. Your comments are welcomed.