Falmouth Town Manager Recommends $115.5 Million Budget

Falmouth Town Manager Julian SusoDON PARKINSON/ENTERPRISE - Falmouth Town Manager Julian Suso

Selectmen took aim at the Falmouth Public Schools Monday night during a presentation on town manager Julian M. Suso’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

Mr. Suso’s proposed budget of $115,542,171 represents a 2.29 percent increase over the $112,954,739 budget that was approved by Town Meeting for this current fiscal year.

As part of that budget a $1.5 million gap exists between what Mr. Suso is recommending for the school department and what school superintendent Bonny L. Gifford is seeking. Mr. Suso’s recommendation calls for a $734,000 increase next fiscal year, an amount Dr. Gifford told the school committee last month would not be enough to cover a contracted 2 percent pay raise for staff along with rising costs for special education.

When finance committee vice chairman Nicholas S. Lowell asked selectmen for an opinion on this noticeable difference between the two sides, board members had harsh words for the school department.

Chairman Brent V.W. Putnam suggested that there might be some “belt tightening” needed on the school side to determine where cuts can be made in their proposed budget.

And selectman Kevin E. Murphy took the criticism a step further, noting that the board set a policy in November that set a 2.25 percent budget increase for all departments.

He stressed that all departments must live within their means, arguing that it is inappropriate for the school department to give raises to staff that it knows the town cannot cover.

And he noted that details of the overall budget show several layers in which the school department receives direct funding, including roughly $398,000 in school choice funds for out-of-town students who choose to come to Falmouth. On the opposite side, he pointed out that the town covers several school department costs that the average taxpayer may not see. This includes the $225,000 the town pays for Falmouth students who opt to attend school outside the district.

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In addition, he said, officials in the Falmouth school department often complain about the impact that Sturgis Charter Public School has on its budget. But Mr. Murphy said that is somewhat misleading as the roughly $1.65 million cost the town incurs for Sturgis is not paid for out of the school department budget, but the town’s budget.

While Mr. Murphy wanted to work with the school department on coming to an agreeable number for their budget, he said, the $1.5 million difference was simply too much for the town to bear. “I just don’t know where that money is coming from,” he said. “That is my original interpretation out of the gate.”

“I hope that provides some answers to you,” Mr. Putnam said.

“More than enough,” Mr. Lowell said, eliciting laughter from those in attendance.

Argument to Reduce Taxes

Outside of that there was little public comment except for two statements made by residents concerned about the town continually increasing the budget 2.5 percent, as it is permitted under state law, every year. J. Malcolm Donald of Ambleside Drive, West Falmouth, asked why town officials repeatedly take this approach, arguing that most taxpayers would like to see their taxes not go up.

As part of his argument, he said, he never hears a justification of whether these tax increases are needed. “I take issue with the idea of maximizing revenue, using the 2.5 percent levy and not leaving anything on the table,” he said.

Mr. Putnam responded by noting that if the town did not increase taxes within the levy limit then certain town services and programs would have to be cut.

“Maybe do things more efficiently,” Mr. Donald said.

“If you can provide some [specific] suggestions we are more than willing to listen,” Mr. Putnam said.

Mr. Murphy also addressed these comments, later pointing out that the town is taking a fiscally conservative approach with this budget as it is setting aside .25 percent of the tax increase and placing it into reserve funds. Additionally, he pointed out that many town employees have forgone pay raises and cost of living increases in recent years, further examples of how the town has tried to minimize expenses.

Still Marc P. Finneran of Trotting Park Road, Teaticket, pointed out that a 2.5 percent annual increase over a 10-year period equates to a 25 percent overall increase. “The percentage of people [in town] who have received a 25 percent raise in the past 10 years is relatively small,” he said.

He also offered his insight into the school department budget debate, saying that he heard the school committee may be looking for more money at Town Meeting. “People need to ask whether there is any more money out there,” he said.

For most of the evening finance director Jennifer Petit put forth the majority of the comments as she presented the proposed budget, highlighting its key components.

A little less than 75 percent of the entire budget, she noted, is paid for through property taxes. The state provides an additional 7.6 percent while local estimated receipts cover roughly 15 percent.

For FY15, she said, the town is budgeting $18 million for estimated local receipts, which includes a range of revenue-generating items including motor vehicle excise taxes, hotel/motel taxes and meals taxes.

She noted that the town, through the board’s budget policy, is proposing to allocate 100 percent of the revenue from meals taxes to funding reserves including $1 million to the capital stabilization fund, $440,000 to the general stabilization fund and $100,000 to the Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) Trust Fund.

The budget, she said, will allocate $500,000 in free cash to the general stabilization fund, initial steps that would help move the town to an enterprise fund for the water department.

In terms of expenses, Ms. Petit noted that 38.6 percent of the overall budget goes toward education with employee benefits, including health care, constituting 16.9 percent. Other notable costs include 13.1 percent toward debt services, 10.9 percent for public safety and 10.2 percent for the Department of Public Works.

In terms of new expenses, Ms. Petit said, Mr. Suso is recommending to contract out work to better maintain both Goodwill Park and the Shining Sea Bikeway. There is also an additional staff person proposed to assist the personnel department and the planning department.

Following her presentation selectmen had few questions for either Ms. Petit or Mr. Suso, complimenting them on the detail provided in their budget books. “I have to say this is the most thorough budget I’ve seen in my nine years on the board of selectmen,” Mr. Murphy said, before praising the town’s fiscally-conservative approach that has helped place the town on sound financial footing. “I don’t want to hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ but we are getting there.”

Selectmen are expected to vote on the budget at their meeting next Monday, at which time it will be sent to the Falmouth Finance Committee.

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