The Finance Committee Thursday approved the proposed fiscal 2024 budget for municipal departments by the closest of margins, with Chair Ben Thomas casting the decisive vote in a 5-4 outcome.
In contrast, the Committee approved the fiscal 2024 school budget 8-0-1, with member Ron O’Brien abstaining on a technicality.
The departmental budgets reflected an increase of 6.7 percent, despite the Finance Committee’s 3.5 percent guideline. After review in January, the committee did not send it back for adjustments, with some members acknowledging that in an inflationary period the guideline was unrealistic.
Thursday there was some uncertainty as to whether the Finance Committee budget would be printed in the annual town meeting warrant if a vote was delayed by another meeting.
Member Paul Mortenson then moved to approve the budget as submitted. Mortenson has been the most vocal member in favor of the proposal; he also will join the Select Board after the March 11 town election.
After a few seconds delay, Abbie Seibert seconded Mortenson’s motion. Mortenson asked if there were specific budget lines the committee wanted to revisit.
Member Elizabeth McClung questioned the timing of adding new positions. “I wonder if it’s the right thing to be doing, expanding employees at this time.”
But there was no discussion. The vote was 4-4 when Thomas broke the tie.
Earlier this month the Finance Committee indicated that the education budget, which arrived 4 percent higher than the current year’s, should be no more than 3.5 percent, the original guideline.
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented the revisions to the FinCom Thursday. He explained that the School Committee approved three moves to reduce the budget by $233,393, or 0.5 percent.
And the first two transfer responsibility to the Finance Committee. The budget line for out-of-district tuition for students with special needs was reduced by $150,000, and the $56,000 for a “reserve” teacher to be hired only if there is a surge in enrollment was deleted.
But the School Committee emphasized that if it is determined during the fiscal year that this money is needed, it will be seeking transfers from the reserve fund. The remaining $27,398 comes from the so-called “circuit-breaker” account of special-education state reimbursement.
The revised school budget of $46,737,588 not only was approved by the committee but the process was lauded by some members.
“Even the original budget was very respectful of the Bedford taxpayers,” said O’Brien. The revision, he noted, trusts the Finance Committee “to do the right thing. This is just excellent work.” Seibert added, “I think this is an elegant solution.” The reduced total, she said, “sets us up better for next year.” Steve Steele said some citizens were “astounded by attention to detail. He said Conrad and Finance Director Julie Kirrane “knew that budget inside and out.”
Thomas said he hopes that in coming years, out-of-district tuition will be part of the school budget. Conrad reminded members that the School Committee attempted to accomplish that for fiscal 2024.
“We don’t want to be in the reserve fund request business,” Conrad said. “We’re getting closer because we continue to be conservative with our budgeting. But there are a number of pressures on our budget, as well as other municipal budgets.”
In answer to a question from member Erica Liu, Conrad said the budget category out-of-district tuition is “very volatile.” He said a single placement can range from $150,000 to $400,000. “We are trying to do the best we can to protect the budget and be prepared.” That includes creating in-house programs as alternatives to what is being done out of district.
Earlier, the committee voted to recommend approval of the fiscal 2024 capital budget. Although the margin was again 5-4, Karen Dunn opposed the capital article and O’Brien favored it, the reverse of their positions on the operating budget.