Voters, Unfazed by Health Insurance Spike, Approve Fiscal 2025 Budget

The $114,530,309 fiscal 2025 town budget was approved by Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday.

If you inadvertently add six-and-a-half cents while pumping $10 worth of gasoline, is that a game-changer?

The $114,530,309 fiscal 2025 town budget approved by Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday included a surprise $750,000 increase in health insurance costs. Town officials were notified of the spike two-and-a-half weeks earlier.

But the 0.067 percent increase did not deter approval of the budget, which overall is 3.62 percent higher than the current spending plan.  

The health insurance budget already was higher than the current year’s because of a proposed increase in the town’s share for family-plan premium. The current share is among the lowest in the region and is hurting the town competitively, officials say. The higher premium share goes into effect July 1.

There were questions on about a dozen budget line items, most of them posed by Steve Steele seeking explanations for increases. Steele is a former longtime Finance Committee member who last summer was not reappointed. All of the held budget lines eventually passed with ease.

Former Selectman Joe Piantedosi, who was on the board that launched the combined municipal-schools Facilities Department in 1997, noted that the school’s share is embedded in the education budget, where money can be moved to where needed. That can result in neglect of maintenance, he said, which is what led to the creation of the separate department.

A review of annual warrant reports shows that as early as 2004, the school share was designated as part of the overall school budget.

Also at Tuesday’s Town Meeting session, voters appropriated $7,640,500 from free cash to supplement revenues and balance the budget. This is about half the amount that has been certified for the town by the state Department of Revenue.

Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas, in his financial review that began Town Meeting, explained that free cash is “money that we didn’t expect and didn’t plan for in the budget.” Sources can range from an early retirement to higher-than-expected sales of jet fuel.

Finance Committee Chair Ben Thomas, in his financial review that began Town Meeting, explained that free cash is “money that we didn’t expect and didn’t plan for in the budget.”

Asked by Steele if there was a major driver for the current balance, Thomas said there were some large building permit fees. 

“We are going to see some growth for a while, but not like we’ve been seeing. That’s the motivation behind my concern” for the free-cash balance, Thomas said. “Free cash may drop somewhat in the next few years, so we want to be careful the way we use it.” 

He emphasized that since free cash is not a guaranteed revenue source, it never should be allocated to pay for recurring expenditures.

Thomas also told Town Meeting that the town’s financial policies dictate several financial decisions. 

“Policies keep you in the guardrails of finances and make life a little easier,” he said.

The $500,000 in the Finance Committee reserve fund is close to the 1 percent of the operating budget under the policy, he noted, and there is no additional funding of the emergency stabilization fund, which already exceeds the maximum suggested, he added

Thomas introduced the budget article by explaining that personnel costs – salaries and benefits – are driving the increase. And they are an answer to the question of “how do we attract and keep people?” he said.

The budget reflects a 3.1 percent average inflation rate for the current calendar year, “which is pushing on goods and services,” he added.

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