Despite the looming financial instability the town is facing, the Select Board and the Finance Committee appear to have been in lockstep with one another for the entirety of the budget process. Arguably two of the three most powerful boards in town, officials across both groups have spoken favorably about their confidence the town will be able to steer away from the financial problems it faces.
But, in April 1983, members of the two boards were not quite as in sync.
A Daily Evening Item story from this week 40 years ago documented the then-Board of Selectmen’s strong support of funding school and other municipal employees’ contracts despite objections from the FinCom about the contract increases. In order to do so, the board voted to support an indefinite postponement of the Town Meeting warrant article funding the town’s pension fund, saving roughly $170,000 — a little more than half of the $300,000 needed to fund the increases.
“We are morally and legally bound to support” the employees contracts, Selectman John Whipple is quoted as saying. The contracts were settled in the six percent range over two years with school teachers; seven percent for police and fire; and five percent for the Municipal Association, the Item wrote.
Whipple proposed a number of other steps the board could recommend at Town Meeting, including postponement of an article asking to purchase a new patrol boat for $60,000, and $14,000 in cuts to the town’s drainage account.
That same Wednesday, the School Committee convened in executive session to discuss its strategy following the FinCom’s announcement that there were no funds available for the wage settlements. The Item wrote that the committee “faces the biggest financial hurdle in obtaining Town Meeting approval.” The committee and the teachers’ union had reached agreement on a 6.5 percent hike, meaning an additional $98,000 was needed to fund contractual obligations in addition to the $200,000 already set aside by Town Meeting.
But, the teachers’ union had not yet formalized the agreement at the time.
The FinCom’s chairman, James Hourihan, explained that his committee voted unanimously not to recommend the contract settlements, and also recommended against withdrawing $150,000 from the town’s free cash account. Hourihan predicted a “financial disaster” when it came time to fund the second year of the contracts.
In defending his committee’s move to opt against recommending the salary increases, Hourihan said prior increases were “substantial” in comparison to the cost of living increase nationally. But, the FinCom was not opposed to the increases altogether, and Hourihan said the committee would likely go along with a salary increase closer to four percent.
The board’s chairman, Dwight Grader, said the town had been tight with employees and suggested rather than go forward with Whipple’s recommendations of removing the purchase of the boat and other items, the Selectmen put forward a Proposition 2 1/2 override (sound familiar?) or remove bonding costs in the amount of $560,000 from the budget outside the Proposition 2 1/2 limits.
Selectman Arnold Alexander said the board would find money for the agreements, that he said were reached in good faith. He is also quoted as being “flabbergasted” by the FinCom’s actions.
Selectman William Conly served as the lone dissenter saying, “if we come up with $192,000 this year, what happens next year. It scares me. And it’s a financial blunder to dissolve the Free Cash account.”
The board also voted to have the town counsel put forward options on setting up an override election.