The Finance Committee convened Monday to hear an update from Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer and Finance Director Aleesha Nunley Benjamin on the fiscal year 2024 budget, where both officials said final numbers — particularly those concerning a proposed override — remain unavailable.
Kezer said he has now met with each town department to review their FY24 budget requests and told the committee he has a spreadsheet with a column representing a balanced budget and a column representing a level services budget. The balanced budget includes a series of cuts to services, a result of the declining amount of free cash available to the town, and the level services budget represents the actual cost of continuing to provide all the services the town does.
The difference between the two columns represents the amount the town would ask voters for via an override to plug the FY24 structural deficit, a number that Kezer said he was not ready to provide. But, he said, his fear earlier in the budget process that the deficit number would be “astronomical” has been assuaged.
“It is reasonable to work with,” he said. “From a municipal perspective, we’re in a ballpark of a reasonable and responsible override number.”
Kezer said officials are still in the process of scrubbing numbers and checking formulas as they finalize the budget. He added that the average total of cuts at each town department was 4 percent.
Finance Committee Chair Alec Goolsby said it’s the committee’s responsibility to present a balanced budget at Town Meeting, regardless of what cuts are made.
Goolsby said the school department has been presenting a reduced budget to its committee liaison since Kezer’s state of the town in February. That department’s reduced budget is not finalized. Kezer said. He added that he and Nunley Benjamin are set to sit down with Superintendent John Buckey and Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Michelle Cresta to go over the numbers ahead of the FinCom vote on the school budget slated for Monday.
Kezer told the committee that override and budget numbers would be available ahead of the annual Town Meeting warrant hearing set for April 10.
“We’re at the stage now of scrubbing and validating all our numbers,” he said. “We’re in the quality control phase right now of the calculations to make sure everything is correct … as soon as we finish that quality check I’m prepared to share the information.”
“The sooner the better,” he added.
Kezer also provided additional clarity on the second override being discussed by the Select Board, which would fund the town’s pre-existing stabilization fund as a reserve in lieu of relying on free cash as reserves to balance the budget. He said town officials are exploring if there is an opportunity to add to the structural deficit override to start setting funds aside in the stabilization fund. Doing so is dependent on the size of the deficit, Kezer said.
That fund already has $500,000 in it, he added. The key difference between the fund and using free cash is the threshold required to use either — free cash can be accessed via a majority vote of Town Meeting, while the fund requires a supermajority.
“If we continue building up over time, hopefully what happens is we may need to use a portion of what we built up to get through next year, the year after, but each year we need less and less of drawing from the fund,” Kezer said.
At that point, Kezer said it would see further funding but remain as a backup, as opposed to a mechanism to balance the budget.
Goolsby also walked members through the timeline of the budget process — with a vote on half of the town department budgets on March 27, and another vote on the rest of the departments on April 3. The warrant hearing is set for April 10, when the committee will make recommendations on financial articles for the annual Town Meeting set for May 1. Potential overrides would then go before voters at the annual election on June 20.