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Even as contract negotiations between the School Committee and teachers union are in a logjam, Town Manager Jodi Ross’ $120 million budget recommendation for fiscal 2019 is calling for almost 50 percent of expenditures to go toward the town’s nine public schools.
The situation underscores the complexities of budgetary planning in a year when new growth revenues are down, state aid is uncertain, and the town’s need for more public safety manpower is up.
Ross is estimating only a 1.5 percent increase for the School Department’s fiscal 2019 budget.
As compared to the current fiscal year’s School Department budget of $56 million, which rose 2.5 percent over the previous year, the coming fiscal year’s allotment is recommended at $57.9 million, which includes an infusion from a recently approved tax increase. The budgeted amount for the School Department represents 48.26 percent of all expenditures.
In May voters approved a $1.6 million override of Proposition 2 ½ , a state law that limits annual property tax increases to 2.5 percent plus new growth.
The funds are set aside and will be used to boost the teachers salaries by approximately 6 percent annually to make them commensurate with the salaries of teachers in comparable communities.
The money is to be apportioned evenly over three years at $530,000 per year. In May school officials said the increase would be about $180 per year on an average assessed home. However, since then, home valuations have jumped 6 percent. Today, an average assessed home in Westford is $520,000, according to Principal Assessor Paul Plouffe.
With the override allotment, the School Department will receive a 2.43 percent increase for the year that begins July 1.
School Committee member Megan Eckroth, on Dec. 4, questioned why the upcoming fiscal year’s increase included the override amount.
“So why is that counting as a large portion of the increase from the town general fund increase?” she said.
Ross, who attended the School Committee meeting to present her recommended budget, held firm to her recommended allotment, noting that rising costs for such things as health insurance are pulling her in different directions.
“…there’s only so much extra revenue that comes in every year,” Ross said.
Meanwhile the teachers 2014-17 union contract expired on Aug. 31. Westford Education Association President Mary McCusker declined comment. School Committee Chairman Terry Ryan described the disagreement with the union as a language issue, but stopped short of saying it has to do with asking the teachers to increase their work day by 15 minutes.
“I really can’t comment on that,” he said when the question was posed.
The contract issue is headed for arbitration with the state Department of Labor Relations.
The Finance Committee will take up the School Department budget in a public hearing on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. Hearings for other departments will continue each Thursday through Jan. 25.
The Big Picture
Ross’s fiscal 2019 budget represents an increase of 2.46 percent over the current fiscal year’s budget of $117.5 million. Expenditures beyond the schools, Ross is recommending $22.64 million [18.86 percent] for other town departments, $999K [.83 percent] for the Community Preservation Committee, $7.2 million [5.99 percent] in debt service, $7.46 million [6.21 percent] for enterprise funds, $724k [.60 percent] for the Nashoba Valley Technical High School assessment, $17.2 million [14.34 percent] for unclassified expenses, and $5.89 million [4.91 percent) in other amounts to be raised.
Other amounts to be raised consist of such things as free cash from the capital plan, ambulance enterprise capital, and water enterprise capital, according to Finance Director Dan O’Donnell.
Projected revenues: $78.49 million in tax revenues, $8.2 million in local revenue, $21.2 million in state aid, $7.9 million in enterprise funds, $1.66 million in other available funds and $2.54 in free cash appropriation.
The town has $8.6 million in cash reserves, representing 7.35 percent of the total operating budget.
But the new growth figure that helped the town to enjoy some belt loosening in recent years has shrunk from $1.8 million in fiscal 2015 and from $901K in fiscal 2016, to $707K in fiscal 2017 and $409K in fiscal 2018. Ross noted the town has experienced a slowdown in new growth since the completion of Cornerstone Square and Princeton Properties several years ago.
“Because we originally estimated a new growth total of $850,000 for fiscal 2018, the shortfall forced our town to fill a $441,143 gap in order to recommend a balanced budget for fiscal 2019,” Ross stated.
But she noted, while new growth fell short of expectations, local revenue from motor vehicle excise tax, fees, licenses and permits, and investment income increased.
Health Insurance for municipal and school employees is a budget buster. Ross is budgeting $10.5 million, representing an increase of $129K or about 1.2 percent over the current fiscal year’s health insurance budget. But the amount is 13 percent above the projected fiscal 2018 expenditure, according to O’Donnell.
“We had budgeted last year for an 8 percent increase and we received a 13 percent increase when we had our renewal,” Ross said. What saved them, said the two officials was a vote by employees to accept health plan design changes.
Another drain are the benefits earmarked for retired employees, otherwise known as Other Post Employment Benefits. The fiscal 2019 contribution is $996K for health and life insurance benefits. The OPEB fund currently holds $4.31 million. The town’s total liability is $65.9 million.
“We did fund our obligation for this year,” said Ross.
A 2004 discovery of a water soluble contaminant in groundwater caused by blasting materials in the construction of the North Main Street Highway Department has required ongoing remediation. Ross is requesting $99.5K to continue the ongoing filtration process.
“We continue to work with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection on remediation efforts related to the release of perchlorate during the blasting operations involved with the construction of our Highway garage facility,” stated Ross.
Ross is planning to hire two additional firefighter/paramedics in July, a police officer in October and another in April 2019. She did not specify dollar amounts for the new positions, noting that selectmen had directed her to focus on public safety needs in the coming fiscal year.
“These departments are having an increase in calls over the last several years. They’ve been asking for more staff, and many of the calls are very complex in nature. These are two areas where I felt very strongly we needed to add some staffing,” she said.
Ross is projecting no increase in state aid over the current fiscal year’s allotment of $21.2K for fiscal 2019. That amount will be updated when Governor Charlie Baker releases his initial budget, she noted.
Editor’s note: Terry Ryan is one of 11 candidates running for the third Congressional District. The others are:
- Abhijit Das, CEO of Troca Hotels;
- Rufus Gifford, former U.S. ambassador to Denmark;
- Steve Kerrigan, former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor;
- Dan Koh, former chief of staff for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh;
- state Rep. Juana Matias, who represents the Sixteenth Essex District;
- Nadeem Mazen, former Cambridge city councilor;
- Lori Trahan, former chief of staff for Marty Meehan;
- Alexandra Chandler, a former Naval intelligence officer;
- state Sen. Barbara L’Italien, representing the Second Essex and Middlesex District;
- and Bopha Malone, vice president at Enterprise Bank.
UPDATE: The percentage increase between fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 was added, and the fiscal 2018 budget total was also added. A link to “Westford Teachers Contract in Logjam” was added.