Selectmen, FinCom Withhold Recommendations On School Budget

By: William F. Galvin

HARWICH — Revenues are tight, and selectmen will be using the town’s stabilization fund to balance the FY2021 budget. Board members have made it clear that they are not pleased with the Monomoy Regional School District's decision not to tap its own rainy day fund to help with the balancing act.

The board voted 5-0 to place the school budget on the annual town meeting warrant but did give a recommendation on the $26,960,046 regional school assessment, a 1.19 percent increase over the previous year. The finance committee has also withheld a recommendation on the MRSD budget at this time.

“If you approve this, you’ll exceed the free cash we have,” Finance Committee Chairman Dana DeCosta said of the school spending request.

What is at issue is the regional school district’s capital plan, which seeks $171,187 for maintenance and $183,813 for technology. Harwich’s share of the cost is $263,943 and Chatham’s $91,057.

The maintenance repairs include a HVAC upgrade, roof repairs to the middle school, vape detectors and roofing inspection/repairs at the high school. The technology acquisitions are for teacher laptops and Chromebooks at the middle school and lab programs at the high school.

Selectmen approved total spending of $69,202,480, including the Monomoy and Cape Tech budgets, a decrease of 0.04 percent from last year. The town budget, minus the schools, is $39,140,073.

With a local receipt reduction of around 11 percent due to decreased room, restaurant and excise taxes, the budget was $574,171 out of balance. To close the gap, the finance committee recommended the use of the stabilization fund, which presently holds a little more than $4 million. Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers said officials have “scraped and clawed and looked everywhere they can” to close the $574,171 deficit. Using the stabilization fund in the pandemic is allowed, and putting an article before town meeting makes that plan as transparent as possible.

The stabilization fund “is for use for rainy days and it’s pouring down,” said Selectman Donald Howell.

Powers said the $574,171 from the stabilization fund is on top of $2 million in cuts to budget requests over the past several months. A number of capital projects have also been deferred.

“It’s a flat budget,” Powers said.

Selectman approved placing an article for use of $574,171 in stabilization funds in the warrant unanimously, and also approved the annual municipal budget at $39,140,073.

The school district recommended the $263,942 for Harwich's share of the capital plan come from the town's free cash account. However, use of free cash for the school capital plan would create a $135,000 deficit in that fund, officials said.

MacAskill said he could not vote on the request because it would alter the use of free cash, impacting the municipal budget and the use of stabilization funds.

“I recommend we reject the budget and send them (MRSD) to town meeting with a rejected budget. We’re using all our free cash and more,” MacAskill said.

Selectman Stephen Ford said he was worried that going into town meeting with a rejected school budget would send a bad message to taxpayers about officials not being able to work through their differences.

Given the deadline for approval of the warrant, Powers suggested placing the school district budget on the warrant with the caveat that selectmen have taken “no action as of the printing of the warrant.”

Noting the town is using its stabilization fund and does not have enough free cash to fund the school request, MacAskill took issue with the school district not providing information related to its excess and deficiency fund (a pool of money much the same as the town's stabilization fund). He said the school district’s rainy day fund has $2 million in it.

The school department has not responded to request for additional information. “We can’t get simple answers,” MacAskill said.

Selectmen voted 5-0 to place the school budget in the warrant, “but without a positive recommendation.”