FY 09 operating override gets cold reception

I thought B2’s readers might like an update, following Wednesday night’s Warrant Committee meeting, on the status of debate among the town’s elected leaders, on the possibility of an operating override for FY09 to help cover what began as an estimated $3 million budget deficit, threatening both town and school programs.

As you probably know at this point, Belmont failed to generate enough revenue from its commercial and residential tax base to cover its costs again this year. This is actually nothing new — the town engaged in deficit spending in FY08, as well, but was able to scrape together enough free cash to avoid deep cuts in town services. This year, again, the Board of Selectmen and Warrant Committee are trying to find spare dollars wherever they can to put off what would seem to be an inevitability: the need to override Prop 2 1/2 and raise the funds necessary to preserve vital town services, academic programs and extracurricular activities. As it stands, they’ve whittled the budget gap down to under $1 million, albeit by using around $2.75m in “one time,” non-recurring funds such as surplus free cash and money from the Town Assessor’s overlay surplus. Town leaders are also making some optimistic calculations about expenditures on things like health care. The gap between the current monies in the School Dept.’s budget and a “level service” budget for FY09 now stands at $454,000. The deficit on the Town side is around $350,000.

At the same time, the School Committee has recommended $4.5 million override to be used to for operating costs, as well as a one time $2.5m allocation for road repair in FY09, capital projects, etc. etc. What’s not in question is that Belmont tax payers will need to pass a series of override votes in the next 12 to 24 months if they want to be able to address what most people consider urgent issues facing the towns: deteriorating roads, a Wellington Elementary school that needs to be replaced, and ongoing funding of the public school programs.

All of which brings us to Wednesday night’s meeting, in which the Warrant Committee weighed the proposed cuts in town and school services that would be needed in the absence of an operational override, and whether to vote for an operational override this spring, a roads override, or neither. While there was a good back and forth between WC members , including Selectmen Angelo Firenze, the take away from the meeting is that the WC isn’t ready to vote on approving any override yet, but seems to be leaning towards a plan to push through a $2.5m override to fund road reconstruction this spring, a debt exclusion to fund construction of a new Wellington Elementary School in the fall (or whenever the State approves matching funds for the Wellington project), and then an operating override –likely for $4.5m or more — would wait until FY10.

School Committee member Scott Stratford presented a convincing breakdown of three different strategies for passing the override votes the town needs in the coming years and their bottom line impact on taxpayers, depending on when they were inacted. In contrast to the Stratford proposed a operating budget override this year for $4.5m, but with a three year, phased in approach that will reduce the impact on residents’ tax bills. Both the Wellington and roads override would be put forward in FY 2010, obviating the need for further override campaigns beyond next year. The three year tax increase for Stratford’s proposal would be $3,085 per assessed property, compared with a three year cost of $3,121 should the Warrant Committee’s schedule be used and $3,411 should the School Committee’s proposed override schedule be followed.

People seemed interested, but in the end, the conclusion was to go back, yet again, to the School Dept. and town and ask them to find a way to live with less money. Selectman Firenze reiterated his oft-stated belief that there’s lots of fat in the school budget and that he’d have no trouble finding $454,000 to cut without firing teachers, library aides, elementary music education and the like. Selectman Firenze didn’t say what he’d do if , s Superintendant Holland has said repeatedly, there is no fat to trim in the school budget without laying off teachers, aides and winding down popular program.

The long and short of it is: the Selectmen are going to insist that the town and school cough up the money they’ve got stashed under their mattresses. The town and school are going to say, rightly, that no such money exists and we’re going to end up right back where we started –imploring the Selectmen to put an operating override first and weighing which programs will need to be cut if they don’t.