HARWICH — Having just put a FY21 budget in place, selectmen on Monday began shaping the message for funding the next fiscal year’s spending plan. The message contained in the draft proposal stated the desire to stay within the spending limits of Proposition 2½, but that was not strong enough for members of the board.
“Selectmen desire a budget that is within the Proposition 2½ limits without the need for a general override,” the second paragraph of the draft message reads.
That paragraph drew immediate comment from Selectman Michael MacAskill, who requested that the paragraph be removed. He took issue with the use of the word “desire” and recommended a stronger statement using the term “demand.” But he also took issue with the 2½ percent growth limit, saying that growth revenue spending is included in that limit.
“Our goal should not be more than 2 percent,” MacAskill said.
He said the budget has increased by 44 percent over the past decade and suggested a slow-down is responsible.
“We’ve got to be real honest with the taxpayers. Proposition 2½ is really 7 percent,” when rooms and meals taxes and other receipts are including in the spending package, Selectman Donald Howell said. “We’re trying to hold the line at 2 percent. We have to realize there are some lingering capital things we have to pick up and that creates a tax bill. So we have to hold the line.”
Selectmen Chairman Larry Ballantine said he would make that adjustment in the budget message to 2 percent.
Ballantine stated in the message the board’s mission, within financial constraints, is to ensure public safety, upgrade and maintain the town’s critical infrastructure, support the well-respected school system, advocate for additional housing, and ensure the local business community finds a welcoming environment, all while ensuring the town’s proud heritage is protected.
“With the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the board will develop a conservative budget as a ‘worse-case’ planning guide as it’s easier to increase spending if additional revenues are available than to reduce promised spending,” Ballantine’s draft message reads.
In that message, Ballantine states the pandemic has profoundly affected both revenue and expenses. He said local receipts were down approximately 12 percent from the previous year, but two one-time payments – state reimbursements for tornado expenses and CARES Act funds related to the pandemic – offset more than 10 percent of those revenue losses.
“Prudent budgeting directs us to plan based on ongoing revenues not one-time revenues,” Ballantine said. “Although we were able to hold expenses with a hiring freeze, delay of capital projects and other operational budget cuts it will be difficult to maintain these as the pandemic often increases service expenses and delay of capital projects are not always possible, delayed capital project often increase future costs.”
Financial control will be difficult, he said. Those fiscal controls include careful vetting of any new hires and review of additional hours for part-time employees, revaluations and overtime to be sure departments remain within budget limits. Funding sources must be identified, he said.
Ballantine also said the board continues to face the difficult issues of an aging population and a dissolving young population. He said the town must continue to develop better strategies to help seniors age in place while simultaneously improving housing and job opportunities to maintain and attract younger citizens.
“It’s our duty to address the need for economic development, increased access to affordable and workforce housing since the youth are the future of Harwich,” the message stated. “We understand the need to protect the quintessential New England flavor Harwich offers but must begin to focus internally on how to address zoning limitations that cause urban sprawl and the physical disconnection of our community.”
The budget message stressed the need to curtail expenses to avoid future Proposition 2½ overrides, which have been predicted by recent multi-year budget forecasts.
MacAskill took issue with those forecasts, saying they continually exaggerate revenue deficits. The budget message contained a projected $340,000 surplus in the FY21 budget before the onset of the pandemic, but the fifth year of that budget forecast plan showed a $2.7 million deficit. MacAskill said that projection scares taxpayers.
Selectmen agreed the out-years in the budget forecast plan have contained inaccurate debt projections and the board agreed to consider reducing the document to a three-year plan.