Setting the spending guideline for town and school departments is a key role of the Finance Committee and the process got underway at last week’s meeting.
The guideline is set each fall as various departments prioritize where tax dollars are to be spent for the coming year. The budgets are voted on at Town Meeting in the spring.
The FinCom plans to issue its guideline in late November.
Town Manager Kerry Lafleur and school Superintendent Laurie Hunter outlined their spending and revenue priorities.
Schools provide budget data and potential warrant articles
Hunter said the department’s goals include “multiple support to students; mental wellness; cultural competency, and innovative environments.”
“The plan for addressing the above priorities and strategic plan initiatives is still being formulated,” noted Hunter “We will review and may incorporate certain priority items with financial impact into the FY25 budget.”
Hunter said the schools’ five-year capital plan for the elementary and middle schools (CPA) will be informed by the ongoing “Existing Conditions Facilities Assessment,” now underway. At the regional high school level (CCHS), the capital plan includes “a couple of specific projects at this time.”
First, an amenities building, including bathrooms, near the football stadium, “will be brought forward as a warrant article in the FY25 budget process,” she said. The cost for design and construction is estimated at $2.3 million.
“The figures are based on an earlier feasibility study, with some cost escalation and design costs factored in to bring the project forward to current market pricing,” Hunter noted. The number of bathrooms is based on the stadium’s seating capacity.
Another potential capital project at the high school is a track and field facility on the former landfill near the Walden Street entrance of CCHS.
“This is in the very early stages, and the hope is that sufficient funds can be raised so that any contribution by the school district will be limited in scale,” said Hunter.
Currently there is no time frame for the project as fundraising efforts are studied. But a “very rough” estimate is $2.5M as a placeholder.
Hunter said contract negotiations with teachers’ unions are due to start in the near future which may impact the budget.
The department’s FY25 budget will be delivered to the School Committee at its Nov. 21 meeting. The public hearing on the school budgets is scheduled for Dec. 5.
Town weighs in
On the municipal side, Town Manager Kerry Lafleur listed three “strategic issues:” recruitment and retention of employees; maintaining capital infrastructure, and balancing service level expectations through strategic planning.
Regarding recruitment of town employees, Lafleur said a new plan providing competitive wages across the board has “already led to slightly stronger candidate pools even in this incredibly challenging market.”
She said at the end pf the current fiscal year five of the six union contracts will expire and will need to be renegotiated.
“The town will need to dedicate resources to develop a solid, inclusive and comprehensive recruitment strategy and marketing plan to ensure we meet these objectives,” said Lafleur.
But she said the new focus on competitive wages and other efficiencies means that the current full-time employee structure will remain in place.
Lafleur said capital needs, whether within the levy limit or requiring a debt exclusion vote, will be discussed “more thoroughly through the capital improvement planning process beginning in November.”
She said the town will have to address “funding needed to address long-term public safety or public works facilities.”
Lafleur noted that the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, included $25,000 for municipal strategic planning. “While it was anticipated that this work would begin over the summer, we have yet to move forward,” said Lafleur. “Given staffing and competing priorities, we expect this work to begin in January.”
Guideline Subcommittee Chair Lois Wasoff said more information was needed before the FinCom could set the annual guideline, which it expects to issue in late November.
“The information is incomplete,” said Wasoff. “We don’t have information on the impact on taxpayers, so we are putting off making a recommendation.”
Among the outstanding data is the anticipated revenue from the school department, the tax impact on homeowners particularly from the Residential Exemption program, and the impact of the school budget following the union negotiations, although the outcome won’t be known until June.
“It’s too early,” said Wasoff. “I’m optimistic, but not now.”
Committee Chairman Parashar Patel said a “second round” aimed at setting the guideline will be at its Nov. 17 meeting, before concluding with a guideline on Nov. 27.