The Select Board voted Monday night to increase Town Manager Sarah Stanton’s proposed fiscal 2023 budget by $75,000, an increase of a little less than 3 percent over the current year. The Finance Committee’s guideline was 2.5 percent growth.
However, the vote was 3-2; Select Board members Ed Pierce and Bill Moonan were opposed. Pierce said he could only back an increase up to 2.75 percent. Moonan felt that the additional $75,000 energy manager was a misplaced priority.
Stanton and the Select Board are scheduled to present the proposed budget to the Finance Committee on Feb. 10, so there is still another board meeting if a plan to reconcile is offered. “We like to go into FinCom with a budget that we all agree on,” acknowledged board member Emily Mitchell, adding, “I don’t feel 2.5 percent is providing services to our residents that they need.”
For the past two meetings, Stanton has stressed that although she adhered to the guideline, hundreds of thousands of dollars in “contingencies” from department heads actually represent “needs.”
When budget discussions began at Monday’s virtual meeting, Stanton offered four scenarios of ascending quarter-point increases from the guideline total. Beginning with the 3 percent option, her details included the energy manager.
Board Split on Hiring Sustainability Director
For several months, renewable energy advocates led by the group Mothers Out Front have been advocating for a department-head-level sustainability director. Stanton’s plan is for a lower echelon and not part of the guideline budget.
Board members Margot Fleischman, Bopha Malone, and Mitchell backed including the position in an expanded budget. Moonan suggested separating the job as a separate warrant article so voters could decide independently of the budget. Mitchell replied, “it feels a little cowardly to me. We were elected to represent the interests of the town.”
Other scenarios from Stanton featured various personnel for additional work with the Police Department custodial service, food bank support, and Department of Public Works. Stanton said she can stand by the basic budget, but the additions “address townwide needs, not departmental issues.”
“I will live within the 2.5 if it is the will of the Select Board,” she said. “The goal is giving you all this list is to show that there are needs above and beyond that. All of the departments make their budgets work the best they can but it doesn’t mean the costs of things are not increasing. These requests are based on continuing to serve the community in a thoughtful manner.”
She noted that “one overwhelming piece of feedback we have heard from employees is human resources is in need of help.”
Malone asked about the Council on Aging’s request for an additional $10,000. “Expanded weekend hours for the CoA did not rise above Police and DPW. Not that it isn’t important, but there are many needs,” Stanton said. “It’s hard to be the one to say no, but you have to prioritize somewhere.”
Mitchell asked about revenue projections, and the manager said they’re positive, ranging from local permits to state aid.
“We have traditionally done a lot with a little,” Mitchell said. “One of the things we have discovered over the past two years is that’s not sustainable, to expect more and more from the same or fewer people. A budget is a statement of values. How do we find the right story?”
Fleischman pointed out that the town manager’s itemized list will have to be addressed next year if not now. “I don’t see anything on this list that looks frivolous”
Board members grappled with the proposed new position of energy director, which in the end was the only change to Stanton’s base budget.
Fleischman said supporters of adding the job cold have petitioned to include it on the warrant. Moonan pointed out that they can still move to amend the budget on town meeting floor.
“It’s a great idea but I think it needs to be more fully formed,” Moonan said. Fleischman noted that other area towns already have the position: “We are not in the avant-garde on this one.” “I think there are higher immediate needs. “I am fully cognizant about the very strong feelings of many people in the community,” Moonan said
Malone maintained that “it is important for us to have this position.” She acknowledged that there are current employees handling many of the projected tasks, “but this is an opportunity for us to actually have someone that would be able to help them in a more structured way.”
Fleischman, a Select Board liaison to the Energy and Sustainability Committee for much of its existence, advocated strongly for the position. The job was among the recommendations of the municipal NetZero plan, she pointed out, and the energy committee has been discussing it since 2017. She said the town official would be in a position to help homeowners and business owners capitalize on grants, “reflecting a sincere and important value to our community.” Moonan said it would be less expensive to promote the benefits of the MassSave program.
Pierce, the only Select Board member who served on the Finance Committee, said any increase from the 2.5 guideline has to be considered in the context of future spending commitments. For example, he said, the new town financial software, if approved, will add $227,000 to the fiscal 2024 operating budget. Other commitments – including increased operating costs of a new fire station – could result down the road of spending increases as high as 4 percent.
He said he would support the human resource expense, “and figure out how to do the rest over time.”
Moonan asked for more details on some of the other personnel changes the manager proposed. “We have heard from many people about sustainability but we haven’t talked as much about others.” Stanton said she is prepared to bring some back in a year; meanwhile, “I don’t want the budget to be like The Hunger Games.”
Correction on Feb. 2, 2022: The Select Board voted to increase the Town Manager’s FY23 budget by $75,000, an increase of less than 3 percent, not the higher number as stated in the original article. The energy manager position was the only position added to the budget.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763