Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Annual Town Meeting

The 2005 Annual Town Meeting was long, dramatic in part and anticlimactic in part.

Financial Articles

Much to everyone’s relief, the anticlimax concerned the departmental budgets, particularly the School Budget. Weeks of feverish activity proved successful as the Board of Selectmen were able to find $825,000 of increased revenue for the schools. Along with the $175,000 of increased state aid, a total of $1 million in additional funding was added to the school budget, the amount identified as necessary to begin to make progress towards its goals after 3 essentially flat budget years.

So chaos on Town Meeting floor, calls for an override, and possible changes in the recommended budgets were avoided. Indeed, the two million dollar increase for the schools is a very good outcome considering our fiscal condition. Perhaps it signals the end to the disproportionate burden borne by our school system during recent years. On the other hand, many still wonder how it is this one department was placed in a precarious position, dependent on last minute, heroic efforts to avert a crisis. One thing we do know. The groundswell of parent outrage and the strong stance of the School Committee were key to additional money being found. As we acknowledge the call for unity, as we should, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the process of allocating scarce funds is not in large part a political process. Anyone who tells you that budgeting is not political probably has his hand in your pocket.


Despite a written response from NSTAR that their agreement with the Town remain as is, rumors persisted that some alteration might be negotiated as part of the effort to find more money for the schools. It has not happened.

The agreement with NSTAR is worth $1.735 million in mitigation costs, with the money earmarked for agreed upon projects. Town Administrator David Colton has been praised for the value of this agreement. Just how good a job he did can be seen by looking at the Town of Stoughton’s negotiations with NSTAR. Stoughton is not just permitting a transmission line to pass through the town. NSTAR is building a switchyard on a 14 acre parcel of land in Stoughton next to a hospital and a neighborhood. And yet in the first round of negotiations the Stoughton representative negotiated a payment of $250,000, which was accepted. Chaos ensued. The original negotiator is gone. All three selectmen at the time are gone. Stoughton filed suit to get a better deal. And in the end the best they could do was an agreement calling for a payment of $1.25 million dollars, out of which they had to pay $250,000 in legal costs.

Other than the value of the deal, the other difference between their agreement and ours is that Stoughton will receive its money in cash, which will be distributed by the Town Meeting to meet the needs of its operating budgets.

Special Ed

The rising costs of Special Education was a topic of discussion because of its massive impact on this year’s school budget – an increase of over $1 million. This year’s increase was exceptional, but there have been sizeable increases for many years. Special ed now totals over $6.5 million, a big and growing part of the school budget. This is a state mandate, a bill that must be paid whether the schools are given more money to pay it or not. This means that the full weight of any cuts in the school budget must be felt by the 80% of students who are regular ed students. When you combine that with the fact that the School Department is the only department in town not to have its salary increases funded during the last three years, the problem is compounded.

Recently a Selectman captured the dilemma perfectly. He said that Special Ed students should get whatever they need and that regular ed students shouldn’t suffer the consequences. One step toward solving that dilemma is to treat Special Ed cost increases for what they are, a bill. We should include it in the same category as other bills, like benefits and insurance. And like those bills, it should be paid before any money is allocated to any of the town budgets.

I hope that the Warrant Committee will consider this during next year’s budget process.


Town Meeting Member Dr. Lowney read a long list of taxes and other payments. He suggested that supporting a tax cut as proposed by Governor Romney could help our fiscal situation since residents might be more willing to support a Proposition 2 ½ override.

But is that the best use of the surplus the Governor is predicting? After all, the surplus exists substantially because of the more than $500 million cut in State aid to cities and towns, including over $130 million of Lottery money which the state continues to divert from local communities. A more significant and immediate benefit to Milton would be for the Governor to use these surpluses to return state aid to prior levels as soon as possible. Any additional money could go toward restoring much needed social spending, replenishing the rainy day fund (without which how would we have fared during the recent downturn?), and maybe even to fund state mandates like Special Education.


How did we manage to make it through 4 years of troubled fiscal times without an override, when overrides in Milton are necessary even in good times?

The short answer is we downsized. This is what communities statewide did, even many of those who passed overrides. The primary costs in providing services are people. So the most accurate single indicator of reduced services is reduced staffing levels. My first post to this blog, “It’s budget time again”, reviewed the size and types of staff cuts for many different communities, and statewide as of last Spring. The Massachusetts Municipal Association now says that as many as 14,500 positions have been cut from local government during the last few years.

Staffing levels in Milton are published each year in the back of the Warrant in Table 1 (non school) and Table 2 (school). Using FY 2002 as the base year, the last year of a “full” budget flush with an override, we find the following trend through the current fiscal year. In FY 2002 non school employment stood at 204 FT and 58 PT employees. For FY 2005 the Warrant indicates 210 FT and 54 PT employees. A projection for next year holds the full time employee count and indicates the loss of 5 PT positions. Table 2 data for the schools indicate FY 2002 employment of 365 FT and 124 PT employees. In FY 2005 the count is 351 FT and 70 PT employees. For next year the schools are projecting a loss of an additional 17 positions.

Warrant Committee Chair Innes

No one who hasn’t served on the Warrant Committee can fully appreciate the contribution Emily Innes has made to our town during the last 3 years.

Indefatigable, knowledgeable, and dedicated, Emily has led the Warrant Committee during some of the worst financial times we’ve seen in years. The knowledge she has gained about the Town’s finances, the operations of the various departments, and the Town’s needs, is invaluable. Let’s hope it won’t be too long before she can be persuaded to put that knowledge to use once again.


Post a Comment

<< Home