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Voters pass fiscal 2021 budget but reject override at polls

Following four votes, a bit of parliamentary legerdemain, and repeated attempts by voters and town officials to explain its consequences, Town Meeting on Saturday passed the $33,346,128 fiscal 2021 omnibus budget recommended by the Finance Committee and Select Board. Three days later at Town Election, however, voters rejected the tax override needed to balance it, 467-674.

Without the $320,000 that the override would have provided, town departments and the schools must restrain their spending until a reduced budget—one that balances revenues and expenses—can be put to a vote at Fall Town Meeting in October. Meantime, town officials have identified potential cuts that add up $96,000 of that amount. The Finance Committee, however, must first review and recommend those reductions and the Select Board must meet to approve them. The School Committee has already voted to cut $224,000 from its spending. The town and schools must now revise their fiscal 2021 budgets to reflect those reductions and Town Meeting must approve them. “If we don’t have the override to spend, we can’t spend it,” Town Administrator Tim Bragan told meeting attendees on Saturday.

Passage of the budget at Town Meeting this year was hampered by the inclusion of a $372,000 transfer from the Capital Stabilization and Investment Fund to pay for town debt. A transfer from the capital fund requires a two-thirds majority to pass, so its presence meant that passage of the entire omnibus budget required a two-thirds majority. After 30 minutes of debate and another 10 minutes to count the vote, the budget failed to pass. The vote was 146 in favor and 104 opposed, a clear majority but short of the required two-thirds.

Following its defeat, Finance Committee Chair Don Ludwig moved to reconsider the vote, with the intention of separating consideration of the budget and capital fund transfer, as in years past. The vote to reconsider passed quickly and after another 30 minutes of discussion so did the budget, which, without the capital transfer, required only a simple majority. Two minutes later, attendees approved the capital fund transfer itself with the necessary two-thirds majority.

In an email to the Press, Finance Director Lori Bolasevich said her goal in making the capital fund transfer part of the fiscal 2021 budget had been to present a complete budget article that included all the transfers needed to fund it. In the past, transfers have been voted as separate articles that then needed to be pieced together to form a complete picture of spending. She said that previous Town Meetings have approved the budget and the capital stabilization fund transfer unanimously, “so I didn’t think a two-thirds vote would be a problem.” Next year the budget article will be presented in two motions, she wrote: a majority vote for the budget and two-thirds vote for the capital fund transfer for the long-term debt payments.

While speakers and town officials struggled at Town Meeting to reach a shared understanding of the relationship between the budget and a capital fund transfer, attendees seemed equally perplexed by whether a vote for the budget was a vote for override.

Would a vote for the capital fund transfer increase taxes? No, the opposite, answered Select Board Chair Alice von Loesecke. The $372,000 is money already in the bank, she said, and would be transferred to the town’s General Fund to pay $300,000 of principal and interest due for construction of the new elementary school plus another $72,000 in town debt. If Town Meeting chose not to make the transfer, $372,000 would be paid for with a higher property tax.

Was a vote for the budget a vote for the override? asked Jim Farrell of Ohlin Lane. Yes, answered Ludwig, “it’s built into the budget.” But the override had to be approved by a subsequent majority vote at Town Election, said Ludwig, and its rejection would force the town to reduce its spending next year.

Among those who questioned the size of the budget, Bob O’Shea wanted to know why the “school bureaucracy” had grown so much. When he moved here, there were “very few office people,” he said.

“That’s a difficult question to answer in such a short amount of time,” said Superintendent Linda Dwight. “I would just say that there are additional responsibilities that the state has mandated take place in schools. ... If you look at the percentage towards administration in our district, it’s a small percentage in comparison to the overall budget.”

One question sure to resurface at Fall Town Meeting is how to use free cash to deal with potential revenue shortfalls. “We are going to face a deficit of some size ... probably much larger than what’s in the warrant,” said Jane Biering of Littleton County Road. “We have a situation where we are desperately in need of cash, and we have a [capital fund] that’s got $4.6 million in it and $1.2 million of that from [fiscal 2019] free cash.” What would the town need to do to open up that fund, she asked, “whether it’s the $1.2 [million] or a greater part of it to help us out for at least the next year?”

“It will require a Town Meeting warrant article,” answered Town Counsel Mark Lanza, noting that there was none in Saturday’s warrant. The article could be included in a future Town Meeting or Special Town Meeting warrant, he said. It would require a recommendation from the Capital Planning and Investment Committee, and the vote would have to be by two-thirds majority.

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