Tough choices in town budget as expenses rise, revenue declines

Published December 18, 2008 | Select Board's Office | Automatically Archived on 12/25/2008

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Town Manager Maureen Valente was trying to find ways to trim $98,000 from a non-override draft budget last week after presenting a trio of fiscal year 2010 budget scenarios to the Board of Selectmen.

Valente, who presented the draft budgets to the selectmen on Dec. 9, was struggling with what expenses could be trimmed by last Friday, the date the town and school budgets were due to the town treasurer.

The non-override budget of $18.2 million will mean cuts in services and personnel, said Valente, whose requested budget of $18.9 million, a seven percent increase over FY09, would “protect public safety, public assets, public health and quality of life.” A third budget, reflecting the Finance Committee recommendation for a budget capped annually at 4.5 percent over the previous fiscal year, is $18.5 million.

“The FY09 budget is lower than FY08 by over $100,000, and nearly $500,000 lower than needed to provide even close to level services,” said Valente. “We have less dollars we’re spending for the town than last year.”

Benefits costs continue to be budget-busters, accounting for a three percent budget increase on the town-side, higher than the schools because the state picks up some pension costs for teachers.

In the FY09 budget the town eliminated 7.05 positions and cut $250,000 in expenses. Potential municipal staff cuts in a non-override FY10 budget are 5.40 out of a current staff of 178.66 full time equivalents. In the FinCom-requested  budget staff reductions would be 3.40.

“We spend $1,000 per capita on the town portion of the total,” said Valente referring to a chart showing Sudbury is 27th in per capita spending among 30 towns. “We already run very much on the lean side.”

Last year the Department of Public Works budget took the brunt of the cuts, said Valente, “but that put us so far over the edge, that I can’t take any more out of that at all.”

“I’ve expressed my concern to you again and again and again that it’s easy to slash and say we’re not going to have guard rails, we’re not going to have sand, we’re not going to repaint the crosswalks, we’re not going to put all of those things (in the budget), but it’s a key part of public safety and I can’t recommend that,” Valente told the selectmen.

DPW costs continue to outpace other costs due to the unknowns of vehicle maintenance and a big increase in the cost of road salt.

“The other place we’re having problems, like every other town, is in local receipts,” said Valente.

Residents are cutting back, resulting in lower excise tax from new cars and fewer building permits. The budget forecasts local receipts in FY10 for the same level as FY09, but those could plummet if the recession worsens.

In more bad news for the town, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi last week predicted a reduction in state aid to cities and towns of up to 10 percent.

“The word is out that we’ll probably see cuts for the fiscal year we’re in,” said Valente. “In FY 10, it’s pretty much a given that local aid will be cut five to 10 percent.”

The town budget, one of three major cost centers with the Sudbury Public Schools and Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, is more dependent on expenses than the school budgets.

“The schools do one function, education, while the town does 30,” said Valente listing the gamut of town services from the public library to cemeteries. “The different thing between us versus the schools is the schools can just say, we’re going to reduce five teachers, and there are no names associated with it, but as we go department, by department, by department, it becomes very clear who’s on the chopping block.”

The worst-case budget scenario means difficult decisions in collective bargaining negotiations which are occurring now, and which are regulated by law. The FinCom suggested using a two-percent raise as a common metric for all cost centers.

“It’s going to be jobs versus a raise, and those are decisions that have to be made at a policy-maker level as to where we’re going and what’s going to happen,” said Valente.

Final town and school budgets will be combined by the town treasurer in one document by Dec. 31.