The Selectmen and the Finance Committee hold a joint meeting on Monday, December 12 at 7pm at Town Hall to begin their review of the preliminary budget proposal for FY2018 (July 1, 2017-June 30, 2018). At the meeting, I will be walking through the complete budget, highlighting proposed changes for the new budget year and discussing some of the more critical “pinch points” that are emerging in our municipal operations. As always, the meeting is open to the public and all are invited to attend.
At the start of our annual budget process we identify important goals and assumptions that guide us in the development of the budget. Included in this year’s list are the assumptions that residents want to maintain the level of services currently being provided, that a tax increase of no more than 2 ½ percent is acceptable (meaning the median home owner will pay about $200 more in annual property taxes) and that modest new growth, primarily in the form of renovations and a handful of new homes, will continue to generate new tax revenue equal to what another percentage point tax increase would generate.
Selectmen also identified specific goals for the new year including advancing our increased attention to infrastructure improvements, undertaking detailed reviews of departmental operations using sister town comparisons to assess our levels of efficiency, continuing to advance the master planning process, and seeking to more fully engage residents in the decision-making process through greater use of social media and the Town’s website.
It is within these parameters that Department Leaders and I have crafted a preliminary FY18 budget. Overall the proposal calls for a $10.6 million Town operating budget. This is an increase of 2% or $210,000 over the current year. The main drivers of this increase are higher employee costs (salaries and benefits) along with anticipated higher energy costs.
Keeping with recent practice, the proposed budget anticipates maintaining at the same amount the amount of annual debt payments. Because of timing issues and bonding requirements, to help maintain level funding we are proposing adding capital exclusion votes in addition to debt exclusion votes to help with our capital project funding. The new budget assumes voters will approve new bonds and capital exclusions to replace bonds that are being paid off as we continue to reinvest in our water and sewer infrastructure in particular. In addition, the proposed capital budget seeks funds to continue the process for securing a new DPW facility most likely to be located at the current compost site off upper School Street.
The Town’s operating budget is dominated by our public safety operations and the DPW. Determining the right balance of a fiscally responsible budget for public safety and being prepared to respond to an emergency 24/7 any day of the year is a challenge. With a diminished call firefighter pool this challenge has grown and will be one of the areas we debate as we review the proposed budget.
Roughly 50 percent our total expenditures goes to the School District. The Regional School Committee is responsible for developing and presenting this budget to voters. A public hearing on their preliminary budget is scheduled for Wednesday, December 14 at 7pm at the Middle/High School. For now, the Town’s preliminary budget has as a placeholder a school budget that increases the same as it did for this year – 3.7 percent or an increase of $493,000. The Selectmen and Finance Committee would prefer to see an increase closer to 3.25 percent ($60,000 less) in order to better position the Town to pay for the coming cost of a renovated or new Memorial School. Given the built-in increases that school union contracts contain, meeting this lower target would necessitate making cuts in service levels at the school which is something the School Committee and many parents want to avoid.
As always, budgets are about choices and community priorities. You can help shape the choices that will be proposed at the April Annual Town Meeting by attending the upcoming budget meetings and letting us know your preferences.