Draft Budget Slashes Spending; Hiring Freeze In Place

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Municipal Finance

Budget and finance.

HARWICH — Responding to clear direction from the board of selectmen, Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers delivered an austere town budget proposal Monday that holds growth to less than half a percent in FY21. In presenting the draft spending plan, Powers announced that he has imposed a freeze on hiring for any new positions advertised after Feb. 6.

Finalized just hours before this week’s board meeting, the draft omnibus budget stands at $73,915,810, an increase over the current year’s budget of just $346,214, or .47 percent. At $69,235,217, the proposed operating budget is up one-third of a percent over this year’s spending plan. The proposal is for a balanced budget that fully meets expenses with anticipated revenues.

“It’s a difficult budget. There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” Powers said. Selectmen had directed staff to limit growth in operating expenses to no more than 2 percent, but after he and Finance Director Carol Coppola reviewed the budget requests from department heads, Powers said it became clear that spending still would have outstripped revenues by nearly $1.8 million.

“Consequently, it was necessary to cut beyond 2 percent to achieve a balanced budget which does not exceed 2 percent growth in operating expenses,” Powers wrote in a memo to the board.

Hurting the town’s financial planning for FY21 are previously approved increases in salaries and wages of between 4 and 9 percent, higher trash disposal costs and hikes of over 2 percent in certain education costs, state and county assessments and property and liability insurance.

To achieve balance, the budget reduces expenses before cutting employee hours, “however there are several instances where it was not possible to avoid cuts to salaries and wages,” Powers wrote. Departments facing the most severe cuts include the building, cemetery and conservation departments, the council on aging, youth services and library, the health department and information technology. Taking the largest hit will be the public works department, which would see a total percentage reduction of its budget of 2.32 percent over this year’s spending.

“There has been ample internal debate as to whether the town should continue operating the transfer station on a seven-days-a-week, 362-days-a-year schedule,” Powers wrote. One proposal under consideration has the transfer station closing on Wednesdays and Thursdays and no longer accepting trash from commercial haulers.

In a bid to control spending, Powers announced an immediate hiring freeze on Monday for all positions not advertised by Feb. 6.

The detailed cuts in the proposed budget were expected to be posted on the town’s website this week, but were not available before The Chronicle’s deadline. Copies of the budget presentation were given to selectmen at Monday’s meeting, but were not available to the public at that time.

In response to the board’s direction to limit the use of Proposition 2½ debt exclusion requests, Powers has recommended shelving two expensive wastewater project items that were to be sought at the May annual town meeting. Those include a request for $1.5 million for the town’s share of proposed design work on the regional Dennis-Harwich-Yarmouth wastewater treatment facility, and an $8.4 million borrowing authorization that would fund a third contract to complete Phase 2 of the East Harwich sewer installation. Should the town reach consensus on those projects, they could be brought to voters in a special town meeting in September, Powers said.

Powers urged selectmen to reserve time to hear directly from department heads about their departmental needs and the likely impacts that this spending plan would have on their operations. They have also prepared written descriptions for the board.

“Their narratives are critical to understand what this budget will do for the departments that have borne the majority of the cuts that are necessary to balance the budget,” he said.

Meeting a third directive from the board to increase transparency in the budget process, the draft spending plan is presented in a different format from past budgets, providing detailed revenue sources and categorized expenses for each department.

Selectman Stephen Ford thanked Powers and Coppola for holding the line on spending and for improving transparency.

“While it is still a stressful situation,” the austere spending plan is what voters want, he said.

“This is really helpful and it’s really refreshing to actually get something that we asked for,” Selectman Donald Howell said.

Board Chairman Larry Ballantine said the budget represents a good baseline, and it will be easier moving forward this way than having to pare down an overly ambitious budget proposal, “which tends to be impossible to do.”

Finance Committee Chairman Jack Brown said work will continue on the budget proposal, and there are many opportunities for the public to speak out. The finance committee meets frequently and is a good forum for citizens to ask questions, he said. Selectmen are required to submit a finalized budget to the finance committee on Feb. 24, and a detailed budget presentation will be made to selectmen and finance committee members on March 7. Voters will consider the spending plan at the May 4 annual town meeting.