Town Manager Sarah Stanton formally presented the proposed fiscal 2023 municipal budget to the Select Board Monday with a clear message: the Finance Committee’s 2.5 percent growth guideline is a roadblock to some necessary town services.
Stanton said the $18,152,533 budget is an increase of $453,000 over the current year, and exceeds the guideline by $213.
Town department heads have proposed some $423,000 in contingencies, she said, and “all of those things fall into the category of needs and not wants. We are not doing anything that would fall under the category of new and innovative. We had many years of financial austerity and departments are really struggling to keep up with the challenges of doing more with less.”
Stanton previewed this position a week earlier while delivering a budget summary to the board. She also said at Saturday’s Select Board and Finance Committee retreat that navigating the guideline was her “biggest challenge” in budget preparation. “It’s hard to work within those parameters.”
The budget discussion will continue in detail at next Monday’s Select Board meeting. The Finance Committee review is scheduled for Feb. 10.
Board Chair Margot Fleischman was sympathetic. “The overarching issue is the 2.5 percent guideline. You found a way to meet that guideline but it is our responsibility to determine whether that is the responsible way to move forward, given the needs of the community. Nobody is eager to spend more, but if there are unmet needs that’s a really important issue for us to grapple with as a board.”
Stanton said more than 90 percent of the additional spending under the guideline is committed to previously settled collective bargaining agreements, planned merit increases for non-union town employees, and increases in the costs of goods and services.
There are also expenses related to a scheduled classification and wage study, information technology maintenance, legal services, and revaluation consulting.
The town manager outlined some of the requested contingencies: a full-time custodian for Town Center; additional personnel costs for field and cemetery maintenance, and food bank operation; part-time help with the human resources office; and part-time Police Department administration help.
“These are not outrageous things, these are pretty-close-to-our-heart-and-our-values sort of things,” Stanton told the board.”
The budget does not include adding a sustainability director. Mothers Out Front and other advocates of renewable energy have been advocating for this new town position for months, and seven residents spoke in favor during Monday’s public comment period.
Current efforts by town department heads in the renewable energy area have been successful, she continued, and have placed Bedford “ahead of the curve.” Town departments have been working collaboratively, she said, pursuing government grants with “dogged effort” and fulfilling much of the role envisioned for the new position.
The town manager told the board she cannot confirm that the position would pay for itself with grants over the first several years. She added that if the Select Board chooses to support the position it should be defined as “energy manager,” not at the level of department head.
Stanton noted that many budget categories – totaling some $36 million – are under the Select Board’s purview but not subject to a guideline, as they are fixed costs.
“We worked hard to limit growth in insurance and benefit” to 2.75 percent, she said. “For debt, we are on a consistent plan.” A reduction in spending on road resurfacing was verified “with the DPW, around expectations.” An increase in the water purchase allocation reflects the spending pattern over the past five years, she added.
The town manager said ideally she would prefer final board action on the proposed budget at next Monday’s meeting, which would give the Finance Committee more time to digest the plan before it meets with Stanton and the Select Board for a detailed budget review on Feb. 10.
In answer to a question from board member Bill Moonan, Stanton enumerated significant sources of additional revenue. She cited free cash, “which I never advocate using for operations;” increasing categories of local receipts; and “the biggest lever, excess levy capacity.”
Moonan said, “We need to determine the tax impact of various decisions we make.” But the town manager replied that property values won’t be set until several months after town meeting, and “it’s hard to have a truly accurate estimate without that.”
“The town has been very good over the years looking at the issue of what is a good value,” Moonan continued. “We need to be sensitive to our constituents and what it will cost them.” Stanton responded that “we are talking about increases to maintenance agreements, overtime, materials, not a big, flashy initiative.”
Board member Ed Pierce requested a detailed and prioritized breakdown of the requested contingencies. He reminded members that over the next two years “we will have some significant expenses,” such as construction of a fire station. “There are going to be other pressures that come into play,” he said, and the budget can’t be considered in a vacuum.
Stanton said indications are that revenue prospects are positive. “We will be in better shape than we thought—and we are in good shape,” she said in answer to a question from board member Emily Mitchell.
Stanton cited growing state revenues and “an influx of federal infrastructure funds.” Local receipts like building permits and licensing are also increasing beyond estimates, she said, and “we are feeling quite comfortable from a new growth perspective.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763