Selectmen's Budget Message: Slow Down Spending

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Finance


HARWICH — “We need to slow down and stop spending money,” Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill said when presenting the board of selectmen's budget message Monday night.

Referring to the five-year financial analysis presented last week by Town Administrator Christopher Clark and Finance Director Carol Coppola, the message stated clearly the need of selectmen, administration, finance committee and department heads to work together to create efficiencies, provide critical review of all expenditures and create solutions for new revenue streams.

“The current spending trends are not sustainable and will result in either operational overrides or major cuts in staffing and services in order to balance budgets,” the selectmen's message stated. “It is the goal of the board to implement a two-year budgeting and financial review strategy to slow the rate of spending so that it is more in line with the projected revenues.”

The five-year financial plan presented a week ago found the potential for a budget deficit by FY21 that could climb to $3.1 million by FY23.

In an effort to contain spending, selectmen are recommending that budget increases for FY19 be limited to 2 percent to fulfill contractual obligations and rising benefit costs and that general expenses to be level funded. The restrictions would apply to all departments, including the school department. The five-year financial plan identified a 3.5 percent increase for schools.

“Budget guidelines should no longer assume an automatic 2.5 percent increase just because that is what is allowable under the law,” selectmen stated.

Staffing levels are to remain level, selectmen said, with no new hires and no increases in hours of part-time employees. They are also asking department heads to review overtime practices and policies and implement strategies to reduce overtime spending.

The board decided this past year to prioritize the hiring of two firefighters and one police officer. That priority will be revisited to determine how funding can be accomplished within the limits of the 2 percent cap.

Clark pointed out in last week's report that he was not proposing any Proposition 2½ overrides in the five-year financial plan. But selectmen took that message a little further, stating the use of capital and debt exclusions to fund normal budgetary items shall be eliminated as a budget practice.

To get a better handle on capital expenses, the board wants all departments to submit funding sources and justification for all capital expenditures. They also stated decisions regarding capital expenditures will not be made until free cash has been certified and a plan for use of those funds has been presented to the board.

Facility and equipment maintenance is a priority of the message, with selectmen seeking a full assessment of the conditions of buildings and equipment, including vehicles, to better understand the maintenance and capital requirements town-wide and to expand the life of assets. The analysis should include sharing assets between departments to create greater efficiencies and consideration of fleet reductions.

“Adequately funding the maintenance budget based on this analysis should be an annual budget consideration and will be overseen by the maintenance department in conjunction with department heads,” the message stated.

Selectman Larry Ballantine said the board needs to discuss the issue of the need for a good maintenance fund and how to set the money aside.

Finance Committee Chairman Jack Brown, explaining he has not discussed the message with his committee, and was speaking on his own behalf, emphasized that maintenance does not get done without “money or people.” He also said departments should be looking at both leasing and purchasing equipment.

Selectman Julie Kavanagh said town vehicles need to be used more efficiently, suggesting sometimes vehicles can be “our biggest costs.”

With health insurance projections in the five-year financial plan slated to jump 15 percent annually, selectmen said strategies to minimize cost increases should be evaluated by the administration and presented to the board, including examination of alternative health plans and an analysis of comparative off-Cape programs.

With the town being asked to approve $23 million in wastewater infrastructure funding in May, selectmen are seeking to create a wastewater reserve fund which would identify one-time and recurring funding sources. MacAskill said the board of selectmen and the finance committee must work together to find such funding sources.

A newly formed Municipal Revenue and Economic Development Committee will be charged with generating ideas to offset municipal financial obligations by helping the town generate additional revenue. The committee will also explore operational efficiencies to reduce costs and regulatory procedures to further encourage a positive environment for economic development.

Selectmen are also looking for funding sources for the town's Other Post-employment Benefits obligation and ways to reduce legal expenses. They also want to explore county outsourcing and seeking more grant opportunities for the town.

All departments and the town as a whole should re-examine their core mission and functions and produce budgets that align in the most efficient and effective manner possible, the message stated. The board also noted the importance of citizen engagement in the budgeting process before it gets to town meeting.

“The board seeks to implement the most fiscally responsible and conservative practices in place in order to create sustainable financial outcomes which do not rely solely on the backs of our residents. In order to continue to provide essential services and invest in the infrastructure of our community, each of us has a responsibility to ensure our budgeting decisions are solid and impactful,” concluded the message, which selectmen supported unanimously.