Selectmen Express Concern About Spending Increases

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Municipal Finance

Harwich is trying to stem the loss of employees to other Cape towns. PIXABAY PHOTO

HARWICH — Increasing costs and the town's ability to fund spending requests was a major focus Monday night as selectmen put the finishing touches on article recommendations and the FY19 operating budget.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill pointed out that over the past nine years the budget has increased from $44 million to $65 million. The board's budget message issued last fall called for no more than 2 percent increases from departments, he said, yet the total increase is 7.2 percent.

Much of that increase, $2.1 million, was driven by debt exclusion ballot questions approved by voters outside the limits of Proposition 2½, Town Administrator Christopher Clark said.

The Monomoy Regional School District budget was also a matter of concern to selectmen. Selectman Larry Ballantine said he was hoping for downward adjustments in the school budget, which he said increased more than 5 percent. Harwich 's share of that budget is $25,609,390, a figure supported by the finance committee by a 4-1 vote.

Selectman Donald Howell expressed concern over the regional school district spending, citing a five-year spending trend that has gone up by 25 percent. “It's not possible for us to continue funding the town side,” Howell said. “I was hoping for more cuts.”

MRSC Chair Nancy Scott questioned Ballantine's use of the 5 percent figure, pointing out the $39,708,354 request is a 4.18 percent increase. Ballantine responded that when the debt is taken out of the budget the operational cost increase is 5 percent. Selectmen nonetheless approved the school district budget on a 3-2 vote.

MacAskill said he wanted to make it clear that he supports the school district budget, but said the five-year financial plan crafted by Clark last fall was being blown away.

Clark cautioned the board on the numbers contained in the five-year plan, explaining after the first year the numbers can be off. The projected deficits may not materialize. He said there are a lot of unknown numbers that get plugged into future years of a plan. By way of example, he said health insurance increases were calculated at 15 percent but came in at only 4 percent.

“The out years most likely will not come to fruition,” he said.

MacAskill pointed out the town faces $65 million FY19 budget and another $30 million in debt exclusions with phase two of the comprehensive wastewater management plan, which goes before voters in May. With the $3 million in Community Preservation Act projects going before voters, the total is $100 million, he said.

Clark pointed out he's developed a dozen budgets without requiring an override. He said a 2 percent increase is an “underride,” adding Proposition 2½ and new growth provide an increase in the 3.5 percent range. Selectmen send a mixed message when they say they want an underride each year, which he said would necessitate cutting the 175 people employed by the town down to 150.

“Love that, got to lay people off,” MacAskill responded. “This board has never said that. It's not where this board is going. Look at the money in the budget.”

The board took up the issue of salaries for elected officials. They include increases from $1,500 to $2,400 for each selectman, $300 to $1,000 for moderator, $500 to $1,000 for each water commissioner and a new stipend for Brooks Free Library trustees at $1,000 each. A new salary scale for the town clerk would place her annual salary at $92,490.

The finance committee supports the increases, but selectmen agreed not to cast a vote on the measure. MacAskill said he was not in favor of the raises, except for the full-time town clerk's position. Finance committee member Dana DeCosta, who was chair of the fincom subcommittee that made the recommendations, pointed out the stipends have not changed since 1987. He said they are on the warrant for voters to decide. Selectmen voted 3-2 to support the increases.

Selectmen also took issue with a proposed increase in staffing. The budget contained $60,000 for a second person in the town's IT department. The plan was to hire a help desk specialist. There was no disagreement that more help is needed in that department, but selectmen questioned if this was the right means of addressing it. The board felt enough analysis of the needs in the department had not been done.

“It's like getting into a car and driving around without a map,” Howell said.

Selectmen agreed they must determine the needs and it should be studied before they put another person on the staff at $80,000 with benefits. The board voted to use $40,000 in free cash to use consultants in the meantime while the IT department needs are studied.

Selectmen made a few more adjustments to budget requests before approving a municipal budget of $37 million.

MacAskill wanted to hear from the finance committee about ways to get a better handle on town spending. Finance Committee Chairman Jack Brown recommended selectmen come up with a policy to address the overtime issue, saying that $1 million in overtime was “very, very high.” He suggested addressing staffing and overtime issues through attrition.