Something seems to be askew in this year’s deliberations over the town budget.
The budget process began in November 2018, when the Board of Finance unanimously adopted “Budget Guidelines for Fiscal Year 2019-2020.” The BOF analysis was thoughtful, thorough, and conservative. It determined that a $3 million (2 percent) cap on spending growth would protect the town financially while continuing services at levels citizens demand.
Meeting the guidelines became a consensus goal for Town managers and school leaders. The guidelines were the centerpiece of an offsite budget meeting of all the key stakeholders on Nov. 17. Town Council Chair John Engel cited them in December when he challenged the Board of Education “to present a budget within the Board of Finance guidance.”
The Board of Education met that challenge. Their budget’s share of the Town-wide operating budget would be up only 2.03 percent, one of the lowest requests among comparable school districts. Town-wide results would be even better. In the Board of Selectmen’s town-wide budget announced on Jan. 30, expenses would increase just .16 percent, the lowest in 10 years.
It was after these remarkable numbers were announced that the budget process seemed to go askew.
Rather than celebrate success, some town leaders decided that, in hindsight, the guidelines were too permissive and that satisfying them would be insufficient. A chorus has formed to demand further spending reductions of up to $1.5 million from the Board of Education alone.
What happened that would justify moving the goal line so late in the game?
Certainly, we’re all concerned about costs being shifted to the town from the state, but our understanding of the scope of these costs isn’t much different than it was in November. Once the impact is known, there’s good reason to believe that the Town’s financial reserves will be more than adequate to absorb it.
We now know the impact of the town’s real estate revaluation, but the specifics wouldn’t have affected the BOF guidance, which commits to prudently managing property taxes “irrespective of where the mill rate might settle on a purely mathematical basis as a result of the revaluation.”
What we do know is that a concerted and fruitful effort has been made to achieve consensus and collaboration between the Board of Education and the Town regarding the budget. Wisely, it was assumed that we could achieve better results by acting in a spirit of partnership and trust.
If we disavow this year’s Board of Finance budget guidance, what credibility should we expect next year’s guidance to command?
The Board of Finance will hold a public hearing tonight on the 2019-2020 Town Budget. The Town Council’s public hearing is on April 2.
Tom Butterworth serves on the Town Council, but the views above are his alone.