Brewster Weighs Staff Increases With Schools’ ‘Troubling’ Budget Requests
By: Bronwen Walsh
Topics: Municipal Finance
BREWSTER – Brewster will partner with the town of Eastham in fiscal year 2024 on an intermunicipal agreement to share planning staff, Town Manager Peter Lombardi announced at the Feb. 6 select board meeting.
In addition, Brewster’s proposed 2024 operating budget seeks eight “targeted staff increases.” The town is looking to expand the weekly hours of three employees: the building inspector, the Crosby property manager and police department custodian; hire three new part-time positions: a recreation department assistant director to manage the swimming pool this summer, a health inspector to contend with wastewater management demands, and a town clerk administrator to help with early voting and registration confirmations. Also proposed are two new full-time positions: an assistant public works director and a golf department project manager.
“We really need to add this additional capacity because there isn’t enough in-house support,” said Lombardi, adding that staff support levels have hardly changed in 30 years.
The select board expressed their support for the new hires. “We have to give them the support they need” or “we’re going to lose department heads, and that would be awful,” said Cynthia Bingham.
The one-year pilot program with Eastham is designed to produce long-term comprehensive plans for the bay and pond properties at the former Cape Cod Sea Camps, along with a community engagement process to determine public interest in constructing a new community center on the bay property.
“We’re looking to share a staff they have in place that has some capacity to bring some added benefits to the work that we’re doing, both on the strategic planning side and really making sure that we have targeted and productive outreach to our residents,” Lombardi said.
But unexpected increases in school budget requests could throw a wrench into the works.
Reconciling School Budgets
Asked to project 3 percent operating increases, Cape Cod Technical High School’s 2024 budget request came in on-target, at 2.5 percent higher. But the Nauset High School and Middle School 2024 budget requests reflect a 7 percent increase over 2023 due to a 1.4 percent increase in Brewster students. Likewise, funding requests for Brewster’s elementary schools have risen to a 6.5 percent projected increase at Stony Brook and 7.8 percent at Eddy.
Reconciling these higher school forecasts to deliver a balanced budget may require an operating override, Lombardi said.
“Town expenses cannot be reduced $750,000 without dramatically impacting services and programs,” he said. “The only real option we would have — and we’re not recommending it — would be to use 85-plus percent of our estimated short-term rental revenues to support the operating budget,” which would dramatically undermine the affordable housing trust’s five-year financial plan.
While these are all preliminary estimates, Select Board Chairman David Whitney noted that “increases of this significance to the local schools and the region [are becoming] the new baseline. It is really concerning to me. To have such big increases is troubling.”
Finance committee member William Meehan agreed, saying, “These large increases in school budgets have hit us at the absolutely worst time…when we are about to undertake the greatest capital debt we’ve ever absorbed for the Nauset Regional High School renovation expansion. Have you no sensitivity to what’s really going on with the town’s finances?” he asked rhetorically.
The select board and finance committee met jointly last Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a department-by-department review of fiscal 2024 operating budget projections, which are online on the town’s website.
Lombardi said he anticipates a 4 percent operating expense increase overall, including a 3 percent average increase in personnel costs across the whole town, for a projected general operating budget of $54.9 million and revenue totals of $55.1 million, leaving only $138,377 remaining.
Finance Director Mimi Bernardo estimated $225,000 in new growth, and she set aside another $250,000 for abatements.
State funding is expected to remain level, although “we just found out that the state anticipates a 1.6 percent increase to their revenues,” Bernardo said. “We’ve increased our local receipts 5 percent over the prior year amounts.”
Short-term rental revenue alone is expected to come in at $1 million, as are ambulance receipts, which are up $240,000 over last year’s number, Bernardo said. The water department forecasts a $3,000 increase, to $196,000, while the golf department expects a $6,000 increase, to $212,000.
At the same time, “there’s a big increase in excluded debt, from $3.4 million to $7.2 million” to fund the first debt payment for the Nauset Regional High School renovation, Bernardo said.
“Schools are almost half of Brewster’s total budget and a major driver in the budget process,” said Assistant Town Manager Donna Kalinick. Health insurance costs are projected to increase by 5 percent overall, and pension premiums are up 11 percent.
By 2024, taxpayers will be automatically registered to vote by the state, said Town Clerk Colette Williams; however, individual addresses will still need to be verified locally. To handle that additional workload, along with the demands of early voting, the town clerk’s office is looking to add a part-time administrator.
Police Chief Heath Eldredge, who’s known to climb a ladder and change lightbulbs at the station himself, seeks to expand the hours of the building custodian. The department currently has 23 officers, and Eldredge recently hired a new officer to fill a patrol vacancy. When asked about overall call volume, Eldredge said mental health calls are “something we are dealing with daily,” and they sometimes go hand in hand with substance abuse. He estimated there are three to five overdoses in Brewster each year, one of which is fatal, while the department fields five to seven mental health-related calls a day. Eldredge plans to move the department “from good to great,” i.e., from certified to fully accredited, or what Whitney called “from great to superb.” The chief also plans to gradually transition the department fleet to hybrid vehicles as the town works to add electric vehicle charging stations.
We finally have moved into a “post-pandemic type of lifestyle,” said Health Commissioner Amy von Hone, “and COVID isn’t my priority every day any more. This has turned endemic, like the flu.” Von Hone seeks to add a part-time health inspector.
Griffin Ryder credited his 17 employees with two Herculean efforts in fiscal year 2023: opening the Brewster Dog Park and the parking lot at First Light Beach. Digital enhancements brought a new energy to the department, which launched new work order software and plate-reader technology. The staff also completed the Long Pond Drainage Project, ADA improvements at Freeman’s Field, and resurfacing Breakwater and Foster roads via the Winter Recovery Assistance Program in partnership with the conservation department. Ryder proposes to reorganize the department by adding a full-time assistant director and operations manager to help fulfill increasing state regulatory requirements, and a part-time office assistant. “At any time, any day, we have $3 million of equipment out on the road,” Ryder said.
Planner Jon Idman anticipates a $10,000 budget increase, 90 percent of which is an increase in salaries and wages for the three-member department and support staff. “We’ve spent a lot of time working with the vision planning committee and on the local comprehensive plan,” and that will continue, Idman said. The department spearheaded implementing the town’s stormwater management program and increasing public awareness of the state’s new septic system permitting.
The town’s website redesign will help improve communication with the public, as will online permitting, which is underway between planning and the building, health and conservation departments and the housing office.