LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Response to Concerns about the Fiscal 2021 Budget

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Last week, the Select Board received multiple emails inquiring about the fiscal 2021 budget. I will share the schedule for the public process for crafting the budget and address misinformation.

The Select Board understands our community values education. We understand our community also values Public Safety, Library, Senior Center, Highway, Engineering, Conservation, Water, Board of Health, Parks, Grounds and Cemetery, Building & Permitting office, Human Resources, Assessor, Treasurer/Tax Collector, Facilities, Veterans, Clerk, and IT departments. We strive for a budget that expresses these values.

Here’s how the budget process works:

  1. Per the Town Charter, the Town Manager prepares and submits an annual operating budget and capital improvements program for all town departments, under the overall policy direction of the Select Board.
  2. The Select Board approved the Budget Policy Direction on Sept. 10. In summary, the priorities are to meet current obligations (debt & contracts), maintain our Standard & Poor AAA credit ranking, maintain services, and help the Select Board and community deliberate additions and tradeoffs.
  3. The proposed fiscal 2021 budget has not been released to the Select Board or public. Town Manager Jodi Ross will present a preliminary fiscal 2021 budget message on Nov. 26 to the Select Board with a detailed presentation on Dec. 17. The Select Board and Finance Committee will hold joint meetings in January and February for a detailed review of each department’s budget. The budget will increase by the Proposition 2 ½ increase in the tax levy, plus over $1 million dollars in new growth revenue due to residential and commercial developments.

In preparation for the fiscal 2021 budget discussions, I urge you to review the Fiscal 2020 Budget Narrative. (The town’s budget year is July 1 – June 30. We are currently in the midst of fiscal 2020 and planning for fiscal 2021.) The budget narrative gives extensive detail of each town department, personnel and supplies, and a narrative describing changes from previous years and concerns for future years. In fiscal 2020, Town Manager Ross was able to fund all but $2.3 million in requests from all departments, schools and town services combined.

This document does not detail the School Department budget. The School Committee, not the Select Board, decides how to spend the money allocated to the School Department, making decisions regarding personnel and supplies. At a Joint Board Meeting in February, I asked Superintendent Bill Olsen to provide a budget narrative similar to what is provided for town services to explain the budget by school building.

The use of a “percent increase” to the school budget line over-simplifies our investment in education. In addition to our investment in the school budget, the town funds the following school expenses:

  • Employee Benefits:
    • Health Insurance premiums are increasing by 7.9 percent. This budget combines 860 (76 percent) active and retired school employees and 265 (24 percent) active and retired town employees.
    • Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEBS) provides retirees with health insurance and a small life insurance policy. We have a total OPEB liability of $81,267,779 and our current OPEB Trust balance is $7,033,136. The town funds this liability to ensure employees have health insurance in retirement.
    • Retirement for non-educators in the school district is covered by the town’s assessment through Middlesex Retirement. The projected increase is 6.23 percent this year.
    • Nashoba Valley Technical High School – This assessment is based on the town’s student enrollment at the school, which increased significantly in the last budget year. In addition, in March, Annual Town Meeting voted to fund our share of the investment for a new roof.
    • Debt Service — School buildings constructed in the past 20 years, Abbot School roof, Day and Robinson School Windows, Westford Academy bleachers, Abbot boiler, Abbot elevator, school boilers, and WA wastewater upgrade.
    • Capital –school computers, athletic field upgrade, building maintenance, safety upgrades.
    • Community Preservation Funds – Westford Academy Trustee Field.

Over the past 34 years, George Murray has provided the School Committee with enrollment forecasts. Murray’s recent report documents a 10-year trend in declining school enrollments. Last year, the School Department projected an increase of 300 – 400 students. This increase did not materialize; enrollment declined by 122 students and is projected to continue to decline. Current WA classes average 425 and kindergarten to grade 2 classes average 305. According to Murray, “In 10 of the past 11 years, births recorded by the Town Clerk have been below 170, compared to approximately 300 in the 1995-2000 period. This demographic shift has an effect on enrollments.” This information, combined with Assessor Paul Plouffe’s report that the median home value is now $550,000, confirms that our community is changing. We look to the School Committee‘s leadership to rightsize our school system.

Meanwhile, in the past 20 years, our town has grown from approximately 21,000 residents to 22,500 residents and expanded our commercial base. Our calls to police and fire have increased from 13,728 calls in 1999 to 24,450 calls in 2018. We’ve seen increases in the use of town services, such as the senior center and library. We’ve brought on miles of new roadways that must be maintained by the Highway Department. Security threats to our IT systems have multiplied in the recent 20 years, which we continue to address on an ongoing basis. We strive to keep up with the needs of all town departments.

In summary, I’d like to leave you with the following action items to engage in the budget process:

  1. Read the fiscal 2020 Budget Narrative, especially the School Department lines where you will see the school budget is increasing annually and will increase again for fiscal 2021
  2. Attend the Select Board meetings on Nov. 26 and Dec. 17 to hear the budget message from Town Manager Jodi Ross
  3. Question the School Committee about the School Department budget, the largest line in our budget, to understand the priorities they deem most beneficial to our students and how the district is adjusting for a declining enrollment. Seek to understand our funding of health insurance, pensions, capital, and debt service
  4. Attend budget meetings in January and February to learn about all of the Town’s needs, ask questions, and provide input

Thank you for your interest in the budget. Together, we will shape a budget that reflects our values, serves our needs and uses tax payers money wisely and efficiently. — Elizabeth Almeida, Chair, Select Board