“I think this is good news, for the most part. We are actually in pretty good shape,” the chair of the Finance Committee told annual town meeting voters Monday night. “We can afford the things we want.”
Ben Thomas offered that assessment to include his introduction to the debate on the fiscal 2024 operating budget. Town Meeting approved the budget after about 30 minutes of questions and answers on various line items.
Thomas outlined the interlocking parameters – and the town financial policies impacting them – that define Bedford’s financial picture for the fiscal year that begins on July 4. Thomas also emphasized that another goal is to sustain the town’s maximum AAA bond rating.
The operating budget of $70,634,017, an increase of 3.79 percent over the current year, plus $39,232,121 in non-discretionary expenses like insurance and utilities, results in a budget of $109,573,714. “There’s a whopping increase in utility rates,” he said.
“We take a conservative approach in estimating revenues,” Thomas told Town Meeting. “We carefully monitor all the reserve funds so we can have fiscal stability not only in fiscal year 2024 but also in one year, five years, 10 years.”
That means applying $8.9 million in free cash to offset tax revenues, Thomas said, emphasizing that this should never be used for annual operations. The allocation means more than $5 million in free cash remains.
Revenue from new growth for the current year, which is part of the tax levy calculation formula under the law known as Proposition 2 ½, is being estimated at a value of $1.45 million.
Thomas also described the so-called OPEB (other post-employment benefits) account, which eventually is calculated to cover millions of dollars in retired employees’ health-insurance premiums. He said the allocation of $1,385,180 will add to a balance of $14,527,565. Auditors have estimated the total liability over the next 30 years at almost $54 million.
Principal and interest payments on bonded projects and items totaling $11,119,861 for the next fiscal year are within the financial guideline, the FinCom chair said.
Thomas said Bedford is $8,012,539 below the Proposition 2 ½ levy limit, and “this year, we used a little bit of unused tax levy.”
During the line-by-line budget presentation, voters asked for elaboration on 13 categories. Most of the questions, seeking additional details or clarification, came from former Selectman Walter St. Onge. The education, police, and fire budgets all passed without comment. Education represents about 40 percent of the budget, Thomas noted.