Warrant Committee notes: pensions, public safety, sports all on the chopping block

Just taking a moment to write up my notes from Wednesday evening’s joint Warrant Committee – Board of Selectmen meeting. When I wrote earlier in the week, I billed this one as an important meeting where the town’s finance committee and the BOS would discuss the looming Proposition 2 1/2 override that pretty much everyone agrees is necessary to patch a structural deficit in the town’s operating budget.

As it turned out, the meeting — which ran more than two hours — wasn’t the override-palooza that I expected. In fact, there was hardly any real talk of an override at all, beyond some musing about the most advantageous time for the town to get its budget passed (Warrant Committee thinks June, Board of Selectmen feel like maybe it should be earlier).  But that doesn’t mean the meeting was a waste of time. Indeed, there was LOTS of juicy information about where things are headed with the town budget and on what turf the coming budget battle is likely to be waged. Here’s what went down:

Another Minuteman Futilithon: The meeting began with Belmont’s near ritual self flagellation over the sky high costs of supporting Minuteman Tech, which has suffered declining enrollment and soaring costs in recent years. Belmont will pay more than $24,000 for each student it sends to Minuteman this year, and its assessment for FY 2010 is going up %11.5. There was ample and detailed discussion of Minuteman’s high costs — the town is furious that Minuteman can continue to raise costs even while town tax revenues are falling. Suggestions were made that Minuteman might prune its 22 separate programs (for approximately 600 students) and focus on fewer, more focused subject areas. The school estimated that it might take three to five years to do that in a manner that would reduce its overhead costs — an estimate that had Warrant Committee members seeing red.Other suggestions were to outsource maintenance (Minuteman employs 3x the number of janitors of Belmont High School, but is only 15%-20% larger.)

For its part, Minuteman is peeved that Belmont is one of only two or three member towns that refuses to allow middle school students to tour its facility and learn about its programs. In the end, and despite assurances from Minuteman that it is “rightsizing,” there was little movement on the core issues of costs, overhead and utilization.

My take away: we need a way to make Minuteman more attractive to Belmont students. I suggested that Minuteman consider starting a highly competitive “school within a school,” perhaps centered on an International Baacalaureate program. Just an idea.

Deeper cuts in town services: At the request of the Warrant Committee, both the Town and School Dept. were asked to spec out additional, deeper cuts in revenue on the order of $500,000 or $600,000, that might be necessary given the fast deteriorating economy, the likelyhood of reduced state aid and lower tax revenues. Town Administrator Tom Younger laid out the likely cuts that would have to be made to already reduced town services in that scenario. Younger said that reduced hours of operation for the town’s ambulance service might be one area where savings could be realized. Such a plan would require Belmont to contract for coverage with an outside provider during hours when the town’s ambulance service was not operating. He also saw possible room for savings by reducing staff at the cemetary department, possibly halting Saturday burials, ending a leaf/compost drop-off program, shelving street cleaning and consolidating elections to one facility, rather than operating eight separate polling places, one in each precinct. There would also need to be cuts in library services, including ending Sunday hours on 16 Sundays during the year. On a darker note, Selectman Firenze suggested that it may be necessary to “look at” the town’s contributions to employee and retiree pensions as a way to save dollars — a move that Firenze noted would be “devestating” to pensioners, but that could free up cash.

Schools: debate on raises, taxpayer funded athletics could get the axe. John Bowe of the School Committee presented  the School Dept.’s likely cuts, should it be forced to squeeze another $600,000 from its budget. While referring to an earlier list of tiered cuts, Bowe gave a back of the envelope estimate on where further cuts would come from, saying that the schools would be forced to eliminate an additional 2 full time teaching positions and would end school funding of after school sports. That would mean steep increases in the fees parents pay for such programs. While the exact numbers aren’t set in stone, Bowe estimated that the per student cost would rise to around $1,000 per student for after school athletics. That set off a round of discussion about possible remedies. Bowe noted that parents are already organizing to raise funds to blunt the impact of those cuts.  (Folks interested in learning more should contact Ellen Sullivan – eusullivan(at)msn.com. The bigger question on the school side was over the issue of salary increases for non-union employees. Bowe said that the School Committee still had nothing to report on efforts to resolve that question. Non union employees of the Town are expected to have their salaries frozen for FY 2010, and doing the same within the School Dept. would free up approximately $100,000. Bowe said to “ask him next week” about how it was resolved, but B2 has heard that the School Committee is divided on the issue. The uncertainty about that — coupled with uncertainty over the cost of contracted salary and step increases for union employees in the schools — once again had Warrant Committee members seeing red. Stay tuned.

Other stuff: Moderator and Warrant Committee member Mike Widmer, whose position on the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation gives him a front row seat in the ongoing budget debate at the state level said that Belmont should prepare for the worst. That includes a possible $500m shortfall in tax revenue between now and June (on top of already reduced estimates, that is), which would translate into less local aide. Some of that decrease might be offset by funds  from President Obama’s recently passed stimulus package, but trying to figure out how much money will be available, for what types of projects and when is still guesswork. Widmer said the town should plan for a four year fiscal slump, with things hopefully returning to normal by 2012.

Widmer suggested a town wide salary and step freeze for all employees that could free up more than $1m as a remedy. But that would need to be negotiated with all the town’s union and non union employees. B2 also notes (and noted at the meeting) that such a measure would only be a stop gap to help with this year’s shortfall and surely isn’t a permanent fix for the town’s structural budget deficit.

And the budget? As for the budget, its still unclear when an override vote will be put before the town or how big of a Prop 2 1/2 override will be proposed. The sense seems to be that June is the time to do it, by which time the State’s budget may have come into focus. But Selectman Le Clerc noted that even that timeline requires fairly quick action on the part of the town. Some WC members suggested putting two budgets before Town Meeting to vote for: one with override funds included and one without. Not sure what will come of that.