Dear Wayland Voter,
The Finance Committee stirred up the School Committee when it asked for two possible budgets, one of them including reductions of 10%. When the School Committee arranged a joint meeting with the FinCom to discuss it, residents made up a standing-room-only crowd.
The discussion indicates that some want the best possible education and don't much care what it costs, some care about costs and suggest efficiencies, but nobody wants to cut the budget by 10%, at least in the short term.
The Oct. 15 meeting yielded few surprises. The Finance Committee explained that maintaining current services in FY 14 would mean an 8-10% increase in taxes. The 10% budget alternative being requested is not arbitrary, nor is it written in stone. The FinCom asked for a prioritized list of reductions and their impact on services so the town can know the impact of any service reductions.
The town could wind up with a 4% reduction; the choice of tax increases is up to the town, observed FinCom Chairman Bill Steinberg.
Several attendees requested more precision in the budgeting rather than budget reductions, but in fact these could lead to the same end point.
The day after meeting with the School Committee, the FinCom issued a letter to the town calling for citizens to become involved and saying that it has no present plans to ask departments for 10% reductions. (See article below.)
The School Committee reiterated its protests about the request to prepare a prioritized list of possible budget reductions and descriptions of the impacts on services. "It's not meant to be all or nothing," Steinberg commented. FinCom Vice Chair Tom Greenaway stressed the need to debate the budget now rather than on Town Meeting floor.
School Committee member and attorney Ellen Grieco persistently cross examined the FinCom on the 10% figure, making sure that the public would associate the 10% figure with the FinCom. In fact, the FinCom has never said it expects to achieve a 10% reduction, but rather requested committees to sharpen their pencils and prepare options for review.
"Why now?" she asked. She said citizens understood the use of free cash at the special town meeting was a one-time event. Grieco also suggested using more free cash, but the Finance Committee said it has only $6 million in free cash remaining, and plans to use about $3 million toward defraying tax increases.
"It's about jobs," Grieco declared. "Doing analysis for the sake of analysis is harmful." Chair Barb Fletcher explained that the SC, as a public entity, faces an "incredibly difficult" process versus regular procedures in private enterprises.
School Committee member Malcolm Astley and former member Louis Jurist said Town Meeting has approved prior budgets. Astley cited programs the town lacks, such as full day kindergarten and elementary language instruction. Another former Committee member, Jeff Dieffenbach, said the focus should be on tax bills rather than the tax rate, and any reductions in the schools will "decimate real estate values."
Grieco said she hopes FinCom reconsiders its request by asking for either a smaller reduction and/or reductions over several years.
There was some consensus for a further, higher level discussion between the committees.
Public comments were numerous. Topics included the opportunity presented by the upcoming contract negotiations, love for the schools and the need for better budgeting up front rather than drastically reducing the budget.
Donna Bouchard cited Fiscal 2011, when the town cut seven teachers, saying it didn't have the money. Later, the town discovered extra money. All told, taxpayers supplied $7 million extra in that one year, she said: "I don't support a 10% cut; I want precision budgeting." Both the schools and the town need to work toward greater efficiencies, she added.
Tony Boschetto echoed Bouchard's statements and asked for "precision in the process and root cause analysis. What areas generated excess cash? Identify issues, and correct budgets with zero-based budget techniques," he advised. No one should spend time looking for a 10% cut, he said.
The day before the joint meeting, a 2005 co-founder of the SOS (Save our Services) pro-school political action group, Brenda Hsu, had circulated an email titled "10% School Budget Cut?!" which some view as a scare tactic, linking the Finance Committee's budget reduction exercise to "The recent push by a few vocal residents for cuts......" None of the speakers in fact expressed support for a 10% cut. Some proponents for finding efficiencies specifically spoke against it. Others cited the need to maintain the town's excellent schools and other services.
SOS co-founder Lisa Valone expressed support for the committee members. Another parent praised the extraordinary commitment of Wayland school teachers; she's worried that cuts could put that in jeopardy.
Alan Palevsky reminded the room that 70% of households do not have children in the schools, and warned that if the SC refuses to engage in thinking about reducing its budget, this could backfire.
Kent George said the growth in town expenses is unsustainable, and noted that we almost had the highest tax rate in the state. He doesn't want to cut the schools, but believes they need to do zero-based budgeting. He pointed to one-time expenditures whose costs were then added to the base. No one wants to blow up the school department but we need to do things sustainably, he said.
Margo Melnicove said that no one wants a 10% cut but cited the contract negotiations as an opportunity to start applying cost saving measures without affecting services. The next contract could exclude cost of living raises. She noted that the average step increase, which every teacher receives every year, is on average about 4%, and ranges up to 15-26% for years of employment 9-11. Nearly one third of teachers make over $100,000 she said. We need savings without eliminating positions, she said.
Dave Bernstein, a retired technologist and corporate manager who said he has handled budgets much larger than that of the SC, said "hierarchies habitually over-budget at every level. It is always possible to cut (expenses) without impacting quality." He said he wants a credible budget so it will be approved.
In a followup email to the FinCom and School Committee he explained that managers at each level in a hierarchy, under pressure to always come in under budget, include safety factors in their budgets which collectively add up to much more than needed. He suggested changing management goals from coming in under budget to coming in close to budget, and consolidating the safety factors at the highest level.
Suzanne Geiger said we will need to live for the next three years with the upcoming contract, and "I've got to believe there is plenty of room to make changes. There are some provisions that don't make sense, and how did they get there? We're resentful that the first thing said is cut X number of teachers. I'd be shocked if you cannot find areas in the negotiations."
Louis Jurist said the recent Town Meeting votes being cited by the FinCom were not to cut the budget.
Andrea Case said she moved to town three years ago from New Jersey. Wayland is much better, she said. She moved here for the schools.
Alice Boelter requested the School Committee look for savings beyond teacher positions.
John Flaherty, a frequent attendee of School Committee meetings, said the budget shouldn't be cut.
Former Selectman Alan Reiss, who has participated in contract negotiations in the past, maintained that contracts must be brought under control.
After the FinCom left, the School Committee entered executive session to discuss bargaining strategy for upcoming contract negotiations.
DPW Reaction to FinCom Request
The same night the FinCom and School Committee met with a large crowd, the Board of Public Works also met in town hall. Public Works Director Don Ouellette distributed numerous financial handouts, including FY12 and FY13 reports. He presented his department's draft FY14 capital budget which generated an extended discussion. Reminders about the need to be consistent with last spring's 5-year capital plan were voiced, but that was countered by "new things come up," and the necessity for essential services such as safe streets and clean drinking water. Ouellette showed where a few capital items could be postponed.
One BoPW member expressed skepticism about the FinCom's 10% budget reduction exercise. Ouellette confirmed that since the implementation of the DPW in July 2009, the department's workforce has been trimmed by a few employees. He reported that the highway operating budget has been level-funded for the last 15 years.
Ouellette evaluated the impacts of potential budget cuts to highway and parks operations, indicating where some reductions may be possible but where other areas are underfunded. Recommendations about FY14 water expenditures are still a work in progress, particularly in view of ongoing issues at the Baldwin treatment plant. Board members agreed to send individual feedback and budget priorities to Ouellette, who will compile the data and review the draft FY14 budget proposals with the town administrator.
FinCom Seeks Resident Involvement
The Finance Committee is asking residents to get involved in the budget process early and not wait to express opinions until Annual Town meeting in the spring.
"To be clear, at this point we do not intend to recommend that Town Meeting cut Department budgets by 10% across the board," the FinCom said in an Oct. 16 open letter to residents. "Rather, the point of the exercise is to start a healthy, robust, and respectful discussion among residents regarding the inevitable trade-offs between the costs and benefits of providing services, in part so as to negotiate an appropriate tax rate for our residents."
The FY14 Budget guidelines were sent to departments on Oct. 4. You can read them at:
Watch for Finance Committee budget meetings on departmental budgets from now until the Town Meeting. The FinCom says it welcomes public input.
The FinCom says that in recent years it has asked for budgets that leave the level of services unchanged while it also responded to residents' calls for lowering the tax rate.
"During the past two fiscal years, Town Meeting voted to apply significant amounts of accumulated free cash and overlay surplus against our operating budget," the FinCom said. "For instance, for the current fiscal year, we recommendedand Town Meeting votedto spend more than $6.5 million in free cash and overlay surplus to offset property taxesmore than 10 percent of our operating budget. This move cut the FY13 real property tax rate about seven percent against last year's rate...
"At this time, the town has only a little over $6 million in free cash. Even if we spent all of our free cash this next fiscal year we could not maintain both level services and hold the tax rate where it is. Put simply, we are at the point where we need to either cut services or raise the property tax rate back up to where it was last year or somewhere in between...
"In response to this vocal and constant message for tax relief, a portion of our budget guideline letter for fiscal year 2014 requests that in addition to the level service budget, Departments must also consider services and/or programs that they might reduce or eliminate to shrink their budgets by 10%. We picked 10% because it roughly equals the cuts we would need to make from a level services budget to hold the tax rate flat."
Not so long ago, when the FinCom distributed its annual budget guidelines memo, the Committee used to kick off the budget planning season with a public hearing. It was held on a Monday evening at 6:30. All departments and chairmen of all town volunteer boards and committees were invited and encouraged to attend, or to send a representative. Residents also attended. The FinCom presented and explained the FY11 budget guidelines, for example, to a broader-based audience, with the opportunity for dialogue and Q&A.
-- WVN Staff
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor