By Elizabeth F. McNamara
The Town Council voted 4-1 Wednesday night on the fiscal year 2019 budget of $62,179,982 that holds the line on taxes for the second year in a row, this year by taking $1 million out of fund balance, cutting staff, and giving the schools $600,000 less than they had requested. Councilor Mark Schwager voted no.
The budget calls for a $23 tax rate on $1,000 assessed property value. On a house worth $400,000, that equals a tax bill of $9,200. Because there was a statistical revaluation this past year, homeowners who saw their assessment increase more than average will see a tax increase commensurate with that increase. Homeowners who saw their assessment increase less than average or decrease will see a tax decrease.
In Town Manager Gayle Corrigan’s presentation Wednesday night, she proposed taking $1 million from the town’s fund balance to make it possible to not increase the budget. Corrigan’s latest budget gave the schools $112,000 in additional money to cover a school nurse, bringing the total increase in the school appropriate to around $612,000. That’s $500,000 more than Corrigan proposed giving the schools last week but still $600,000 short of what the School Committee requested. The school district has run a structural deficit for the past two years and has been spending down its fund balance for the past four years.
The School Committee will have to decide what cuts they will make at their meeting June 19.
On the town side under the approved spending plan, the police department would lose two of its five detectives through attrition and would not fill the recently vacated animal control officer position.
“I don’t feel we’ll have a disruption in services,” said Police Chief Steven Brown when asked by Councilman Schwager. He added, “It’s my opinion that those positions should be filled in the long term, but we could manage.”
The social worker position at the senior center left vacant with the departure of Carol Tudino last month will remain vacant. Parks and Community Resources Director Cathy Bradley said those duties would be taken over by the community resource manager who is being trained to handle those duties.
The building inspector job at public works will also remain unfilled for now.
Joe Duarte, director of public works, explained that he and the building official could handle the workload right now but that the position would need to be filled in a year or so. The Planning Department has seen a burst of application activity that will eventually make its way to the building official as those projects reach break ground.
In an interview Thursday, Duarte said, “If this had happened a year or two ago, we wouldn’t have been able to do it because New England Tech had a lot of building projects going on. We’re busy now but its manageable. We’re running a risk, but we feel we can handle it. It’s a funny business. It’s very cyclical.”
Interim Fire Chief Kevin Robinson said the fire clerk position, also currently vacant, is needed but can remain unfilled for now.
“This is a one-year budget,” said Corrigan. “All these positions that don’t appear in the FY 19 budget are still important positions.”
Find the approved budget here: FY2019 Approved Budget.
As for using fund balance to pay for operating expenses, Corrigan argued that it might not come down to that anyway.
“Many things do happen in a year. We might not ever get to that $1 million out of fund balance,” she said.
With a $2 million dip into fund balance this fiscal year – mainly to cover the $1.7 million legal settlement from the former fire district’s improper collection of impact fees – that means the town is poised to take $3 million out of fund balance in two years.
Leading up to that vote, Councilmen Nino Granatiero, Andy Deutsch and Sean Todd all expressed their frustration and even disgust at Schwager for his continued unwillingness to support the town manager’s budget proposal.
“Yeah, you did such a great time with the contract last time,” said Deutsch, referring to the 2016-19 contract with the firefighters signed by then Council Vice President Cienki, Todd and Schwager.
“You’re pious. You think you’re the smartest guy in the room and you’re not,” Granatiero said to Schwager. “That’s what you do. And yet, when you look at your track record, it’s horrendous, Mark. You got us into this position.”
Granatiero, Todd and Deutsch all goaded Schwager to say what he wanted to do, since he was against using fund balance to enable a flat budget.
“You have to give a number,” Granatiero told Schwager.
“What would it be?” Deutsch said.
“I think at a minimum, we would need to fund the schools probably $1 million,” Schwager responded.
“Your position is we should be raising taxes 3 to 4 percent, is that right?” Granatiero said.
“We knew a year ago that we were facing a potential legal liability of up to $2 million,” Schwager replied. And, he said, they knew about the firefighter overtime issue and that the schools were spending from their fund balance.
“The town decided to reduce revenue” in spite of all that, he said.
The Town Council also heard a fire department staffing analysis by software engineer and former candidate for governor Ken Block of Barrington. Check back with EG News for an article on his presentation.
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