Natick Spring Annual Town Meeting started normally enough on Tuesday, April 25 with swearing in of new members and laying out of ground rules. But by the end of Thursday night, everybody’s heads were spinning.
Before Town Meeting considered individual articles, it confirmed which items from the warrant would be part of the consent agenda, a technique used to speed things along by not introducing articles that likely won’t inspire many questions or comments. The moderator, Frank Foss, also fielded requests for shuffling the order of some articles to accommodate scheduling conflicts (What, some people have a life outside Town Meeting?). Fuller descriptions of the Town Meeting articles can be found in the Finance Committee’s recommendation book.
Article 7, the Omnibus budget, is the big one. As in, it took up about an hour on night #1, then the entire two hours of night #2 on April 27, and continues into night #3 on May 2. In its defense, the article does include eight motions focused on areas such as schools and libraries, public safety, and public works.
For Article 7, Town Administrator Jamie Errickson tag-teamed with finance and school colleagues to explain the proposed FY24 balanced budget, with Errickson leading off. He started by discussing the need for the town to really get a handle on macroeconomic trends coming out of the pandemic to project the budget in FY24 and beyond. “We were taking into account such things as the tight labor market, supply chain issues, interest rate hikes, inflation—all of these things impacted our budget for fiscal ’24,” Errickson said, noting that inflation really affected utility costs, health insurance rates, and vehicle tires. On the plus side, local receipts (such as from hotel/motel, vehicle excise, and meals taxes) are expected to grow some 27% from FY23, and the town has ample free cash to use for stabilization and service funding. The town also continues to benefit from American Rescue Plan Act funds that can be used for various purposes to account for shortfalls and pay for needs.
John Townsend, deputy town administrator & director of finance, dove into more details on the town’s roughly $193M in revenue and similar expenses. Revenue, up more than 7% over FY23 numbers, consists largely of real estate and personal property tax receipts, plus state aid, and local receipts.
Outgoing Natick Public Schools Supt. Dr. Anna Nolin shared an update on the school system’s request for about $85M (up 5.42% over FY23), and as public school officials always emphasize, most of that amount is legally mandated or fixed by contract. What’s more, NPS and other local school systems are challenged more than ever to serve students, both as a result of coming out of a pandemic that put many kids behind in their academic and social/emotional learning and because the study body is changing to one in which some 46% of incoming students do not have English as their first language. Inflation has had a big impact on schools too, from supply to fuel costs. The cost increase that Nolin and her peers have been reeling from is the “absolutely appalling” 14% increase in tuition costs for out-of-district placements dumped on school systems by the state, after an average of 2.5% increases in recent years.
Other highlights of the budget included laptop replacements (goodbye Apple, hello Chromebooks), funding for feminine products, and an increase in advertising (advertising you say?) for diverse job candidates. About $1M goes to fund new positions, including elementary school librarians and instructional technology coaches.
Keefe Regional Technical School Supt. Jonathan Evans explained the partner school’s budget request, following an earlier presentation regarding a stabilization fund designed to help Keefe with future building renovations. In response to a Town Meeting member request we learned that the per-pupil cost at Keefe is higher than at NPS: $23,119 vs. $17,397, though both superintendents warned that per-pupil costs is a complicated subject.
The libraries used to have their own motion, but they were combined with schools this time around under and Education & Learning umbrella. Library funding went up just over 2% for both the Morse Institute Library and Bacon Free Library, with an infusion for programming at both facilities.
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Motion 7A passed easily, 104-3-1, with very few questions from Town Meeting members. One Town Meeting member praised the town for pushing back its budget submission process by a month, and he said that made for “one of the most drama-free, smooth, transparent and cohesive budget processes I have seen” during his time in Natick.
Article 7 discussion picked up on Thursday, April 27 for night #2 of Town Meeting.
Budgets for public safety, public works, and other components of Town Meeting were main topics.
Article 7 Motion B covered police and fire departments and their $19.4M budget request. Among items of note, Natick continues to boost its firefighter corps, and is investing in a new position for FY24. The fire department also sought funding for new [Read more…]