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Free cash

It was with a certain irony that we reported the Finance Committee’s recommendation this week that free cash be used to help balance the fiscal 2022 budget. (See story.) Our late publisher, Worth Robbins, would be smiling. For years he argued that free cash should be held in reserve until the end of the fiscal year to deal with unforeseen expenses—or opportunities—that might arise. There is every reason to believe that if FinCom had not already agreed to dip into the $1.4 million available to the town this year, Worth would have floated a citizen petition for the Spring Town Meeting warrant to do just that.

Using free cash to pay for two small articles planned for the May Town Meeting may not be a solution to Harvard’s long-term structural financial problems. But it is, in our view, an appropriate use. The addition of $95,000 to the town’s income calculations makes cost-of-living increases and merit awards possible for all of Harvard’s nonschool employees, who have already endured pandemic-related hardship for over a year.

The fiscal 2022 budget, however, is not done. With next year’s teacher contract still in negotiation, the schools, which have been forced to curtail programs and leave positions unfilled to level-fund the coming year, may soon face additional tough choices within the bounds of the $17.5 million the town has budgeted for education. Cost-of-living increases will have to be absorbed by cuts elsewhere in the budget or paid with outside funds, such as the money the schools receive from MassDevelopment for its Devens students. But perhaps there’s another solution.

School leaders have said they won’t ask for more money from the town. Worth Robbins is not here to say it, but perhaps now’s the time for another targeted use of free cash. Is there a one-time fiscal 2022 expense that could be paid for this year, before June 30, that would free school budget dollars to pay for next year’s increases in school personnel costs? It wouldn’t be a long-term solution, but it could provide a one-year bridge to the future.

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