Town Manager Mark Haddad wasn’t happy at Monday evening’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting, and he didn’t mind sharing the angst.
After several years of what selectmen and Finance Committee members alike termed “great work,” Haddad’s seen the latest in a series of carefully constructed and prudent town budget start to be pulled apart under the pressure of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District’s accounting mistakes.
Instead of having a comfortable cushion of financing under the town’s tax levy limit available for emergencies, the version of the FY15 town budget Haddad talked about Monday only has a cushion of $71,000 for the year. To illustrate the slimness of the cushion, he pointed out that snow and ice removal this winter has cost about $50,000 more than anticipated.
On top of that, the political wrangling over the town budget and proposed school budget is just beginning. And the trip down the road through one special election and at least two town meetings — in Groton and Dunstable — leading to an approved and sustainable budget is just beginning.
Vice chair Josh Degen asked Haddad a big “what-if” question about the school financing issue: “So, we have a debt exclusion vote on April first. And as part of your scenario to get to the $1.4M dollars which is Groton’s share of the district’s assessment to both towns, that needs to be successful. In the event that is successful, and you throw $50,0000 additional to the snow and ice deficit, we end the year $71, ooo below the levy limit.”
We now go to town meeting. We approve the Groton-Dunstable School budget, along with every other line item. Now Dunstable has its town meeting. In mid-May. They are in the position, as I understand it, of needing an override of the magnitude of a few hundred thousand dollars. So they have their town meeting and that has to be followed by an override vote.”
“In the event of the failure of that override, the school committee then would not have a budget because we do not have to come forward with our portion of the budget if they (Dunstable) do not come forward with theirs.”
Haddad answered, “The school committee has two choices at that point. They reduce their budget to meet the appropriation that Dunstable has, which would reduce our budget — our budget will drop a million dollars. The school district can reduce its budget by a million and a half collars, which I find highly unlikely, or they go back and ask Dunstable to revote it.”
If another Dunstable town meeting rejects the school budget, the school committee would call a super town meeting, a joint meeting of all voters in Groton and Dunstable. A majority of that town meeting could force a budget approval. But that takes time, possibly a length of time stretching past the end of this fiscal year at the end of June.
If that happens, Haddad, the school district has massive problems.
“It goes to a 1/12th budget based on the Fiscal 14 appropriation. We pay them monthly, 1/12th of what we paid them this year. They cannot operate under that circumstance. They don’t have enough reserves to carry a 1/12ths budget. Because what ends up happening is that (usually) on July 1, we give them a quarter of their assessment, as does Dunstable. So think about it, that’s three months that we pay up front. Now all of a sudden, they get one month from us, one month from Dunstable. On the Fiscal 14 appropriation, which is two millions less than the 15. It’s a huge problem.”
Another pain point for the selectmen and Haddad is the school committee’s inability to, so far, produce budget projections for future years. With a certified budget for FY15 in place now though, school officials said that projections for future years are getting closer to being a reality.
“We really need a version of that to be produced by the school folks,” Selectman Stuart Schulman said.
Degen took it further: “We need the answers to the five year — at least a three year — projection from the schools, much sooner than later, especially, in my opinion, before the April first debt exclusion vote. To wait and delay this until after the vote and then get it a few days before town meeting and not allow the FinCom, the selectmen, the town manager and the both communities to take a look at it would be disingenuous at best. It’s very important to know if there’s going to be an override required next year.”