Average tax increase $30/year; school request cut by $600,000
The Town Council Tuesday approved a $76.5 million budget for fiscal year 2022 (which starts July 1), a $1.8 million increase in the tax levy over the current budget. The vote was unanimous. The budget they passed was exactly the one proposed by Town Manager Andy Nota, including a reduction in the amount requested by the schools.
The tax rate drop for residential and commercial property owners – $20.21 and $23.25 respectively, from the current year’s $23.43 and $23.90 – reflects the town’s increased property valuation, which rose by nearly 10 percent. According to town officials, under this budget taxes will increase “less than $100” for more than half of residential property owners, with an average bill increase of $30. Actual property tax increases will depend on the recent revaluation. (Find Town Manager Nota’s June 7 budget presentation HERE.)
The vote brings to a close budget discussions that became tense in recent meetings, with members of the School Committee arguing for the Town Council to fully fund their budget. Town Manager Andy Nota’s budget cut their request by $600,000 (although the budget does increase the appropriation to the schools by $685,000). He said he thought the School Committee could afford to use the district’s surplus funds to cover the extra amount based on positive surplus forecasts. But for the School Committee, the district’s fund balance represents a hedge between higher than expected costs (say, a spike in enrollment in August) and having to go back to the Town Council for additional money.
Tuesday’s meeting was short on discussion, but there had been plenty at previous meetings, including on Monday, when School Committee Chair Anne Musella said there seemed to be a question from the council about whether or not the school budget represented what was needed or what was wanted. She argued they budgeted for what was needed, citing greater budget volatility on the school side than on the town side.
While each Town Council member in turn spoke about their commitment to the schools, several wondered why the School Committee needed so much surplus. They suggested the town had gone without last year because of COVID, and so this budget should provide a bit more on the municipal side.
For members of the School Committee, the question wasn’t about what the town did or did not forgo last year; it was about using fund balance for operating expenses. Generally, that is not considered sound financial management. But Town Manager Nota said the schools looked to be in great shape going into next year (partly due to additional state funding, which varies from year to year) and would be adding to its fund balance through a couple different mechanisms (including a one-time reimbursement from their former health insurance manager).
Town Council members sided with Nota.
At the meeting Tuesday, Town Council members one by one praised the budget presented by Town Manager Andy Nota (who was not present) and stood by his decision to give the schools $600,000 less than they asked for.
“I’m very pleased with what we can do in a reval year with the need to recover from our COVID starvation on the town side and to make the right appropriation to the schools. That we can have on the average house a tax burden increase of $30,” said Council Vice President Mike Donegan.
“I’m making a decision, what I think is in the best interest of the town,” said Councilor Caryn Corenthal. “It was a very stressful year all around. We put a lot of things on hold. I’m extremely comfortable with Andy and Trish’s budget,” she added, referring to Nota and Finance Director Trish Sunderland. She also noted she’d received only two emails about the school budget this year and both supported Nota’s budget, as opposed to the “many, many emails” she got last year asking the council to give the schools more money.
Councilor Mike Zarrella said he had a list from the School Committee last year of all the programs that would be affected if the council did not give more money to the schools. This year he said there was no such list.
After the budget was passed, the School Committee’s Musella offered this comment:
“I understand the council feels pressure from the many competing needs of the town. Certainly I’m disappointed in the appropriation. At the very least, I hope that this budget season made clear the need for more collaboration. There remains a lack of understanding of the [school] district’s needs, and the higher degree of volatility and uncertainty on the school side year after year. As the district undertakes longer-term budget forecasting, it is my sincere hope that the council and town administrators will accept our invitation to join us in that process.”