At the annual town meeting on Saturday, an effort to streamline voting on the town’s FY2015 operating budget ended up backfiring and taking longer than usual as residents took the opportunity to scrutinize and question multiple line items in the $69.4 million budget.
Town Meeting Moderator Friend Weiler Sr. instituted a new way to present and vote Article 5, the town’s operating budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. He said other towns used this method because it was designed to speed up voting on the budget, which usually takes the better part of the morning during Saturday’s meeting. With the new process, instead of voting on totals for individual departments such as public safety and public works, four motions were made and then each budget line item listed in the warrant was read aloud by Finance Committee chairwoman Betsy Sullivan. The four motions were for the following budgets: general government, the schools, and the water department and Percy Walker municipal pool enterprise funds.
Confusion on Article 5 began right after Weiler explained the process and voters were asked to approve a subtotal of $34.98 million for general government that was shown on an overhead projector screen but was not listed in the warrant. The $34.98 million was the subtotal of all town departments excluding the schools and water and pool budgets.
Will Zachmann of Standish Street said the way voters were presented with the amount in the first motion seemed that the number was “cut and pasted in a way that strikes me as horrendously confusing.”
Washington Street resident Mary Lynn Carson echoed these concerns: “It is confusing,” she said. “It would help if the warrant matched what you were having us do.”
Weiler acknowledged the problem and recessed the meeting for lunch at noon. Afterward, town officials had a new slide on the overhead screen that listed how the individual budgets added together equaled $34.98 million.
Voters then continued reviewing the budget using the new process that asked them to shout out “Hold” regarding a particular budget line in order to go back and discuss it.
Many residents singled out line items to understand increases. Terry Reiber of Tremont Street wondered about a 12 percent increase, or an extra $12,000, in the salary budget for the finance director.
Human Resources Director Jeannie Horne explained that in 2011 town meeting approved salary administrative guidelines that reviewed salary ranges every three years. A study was then conducted that compared the salaries of town employees to comparable communities and found that 26 positions were not being paid appropriately. Some of these positions had corrective funding placed in the FY15 budget and the finance director’s position was one of them. The salary changes were part of a new personnel plan adopted last year. According to Town Manager René Read raises are given on an annual basis based on merit and performance.
The finance director’s salary adjustment didn’t sit well with Tobey Garden Street resident Amy MacNab who felt that the town should do a better job of informing voters about the financial impacts caused when approving the annual personnel plan and compensation schedule. This action is taken in ATM article 4.
“I would love to get a 12 percent raise because someone down the street is making more,” said MacNab. “Somehow we miss the bigger picture when we vote the personnel plan. We need to understand what it means to our pocketbooks.”
Voters also questioned the two new positions of HVAC technician and Information Systems assistant included in the general government budget. The town and schools are splitting the $80,000 cost of the HVAC employee, which should save money on heating and cooling service contracts, which Read said total $95,000 annually. The IS assistant will help the current sole employee in this department manage the town’s over 200 computers.
Residents said when the town hires new people that they would like to see all the additional costs attached to those positions, such as health insurance and retirement benefits.
“Every time we hire someone, we are incurring a lifetime of debt,” said one resident.
Voters asked about the extra $38,000 shown in the municipal services expense budget and why police expenses were rising $60,000. Read said the extra funds for the municipal services department will pay for software to allow residents to buy their beach and other stickers online. This program begins March 17. More money for police expenses was to pay for higher utility costs at the new headquarters, according to Finance Director John Madden.
The $18,000 hike in the legal fees budget also had some residents questioning whether the town has been doing enough to keep these costs down. Selectman chairman David Madigan explained that selectmen approved a $4,000 increase in the monthly fee for its town attorney Anderson and Kreiger, who was hired in December 2012, because the lawyers had found that after eight months on the job, the costs were higher than they had originally planned for. The monthly fee went from $8,000 to $12,000 and the contract was renegotiated to include more of the expenses that had been listed as outside of contractual work.
The new town counsel “has been tremendously beneficial” to the town and “represents the town well,” said Madigan.
Voters ultimately approved the first motion for the operating budget on Saturday afternoon. Weiler attributed the length of the process to the fact that “we are going line by line through the budget, which we’ve never done before.”
The second motion for Article 5 was the FY2015 school budget totaling $31.93 million, a 2.56 percent increase over the previous year. During this section, voters discussed the plan to give new laptop computers to all high school students and some questioned the bus fee. They approved the school budget after some discussion. – See related school budget story.
The final two motions on the operating budget passed without much comment. Voters approved $2.18 million for the water department’s operating budget and debt service budget and $378,264 for the Percy Walker pool budget. Recreation director Gordon Cushing noted that for the first time since establishing the enterprise fund four years ago, the pool has paid for all of its expenses from its revenues.