While COVID-19 numbers have ruled in recent months, it’s important not to overlook another set of numbers that Wellesley officials are working hard to optimize: the annual town budget (See the May 20 recording of the Advisory Committee meeting for gory details).
The town’s doing its darnedest despite the healthcare and economic crisis to deliver a balanced budget of about $180M for fiscal year ’21, which starts in July. Wellesley is also looking to maintain services and the staff that provides them. Town decision makers seek to sort this out by the time Town Meeting starts on June 22.
Town Meeting will be restricted to financial issues, with other planned articles addressed in different ways or pushed to a Special Town Meeting in the fall that could have a much more packed agenda than originally expected. Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop is hopeful that forced changes to the way Town Meeting is run this spring (one option includes going online, with digital presentations circulated ahead of time for comments) will make for more efficient town meetings going forward. We were kind of hoping the outdoor Town Meeting concept might be embraced.
A huge cross-departmental effort has been put in place to cut Wellesley’s capital spending 25% across the board, which means planned projects like the Town Hall Annex, Grove Street construction, and Sprague Elementary School chiller would be deferred. More than $2M in cost slashing is required to make up for steep revenue reductions anticipated for everything from construction permits to state aid to meals taxes to excise taxes (people aren’t buying showy cars). Financial wizardry in areas such as bond refunding and soliciting the Community Preservation Committee to pick up an extra $200K in softball field refurbishment funds have been used to save the town on expenses in the new fiscal year.
Jop’s hopeful that departments will look for more grant opportunities as well, and expects that federal COVID-19 aid such as that provided through the CARES Act and FEMA will address expected shortfalls and significantly offset the cost of protective equipment. CARES could even help fund badly needed physician and social worker staff additions to the Health Department, which is already working around the clock and foresees no slowdown as the new school year begins, and reopened restaurants and other businesses require health inspections need to take place–not to mention the threat of a second COVID-19 wave.
The town anticipates big state bucks as well assuming the William Street development goes through, plus as much as a $1.6M building permit fee! Meanwhile, the town is scoring smaller wins, such as by having staff that would have been busy processing permits etc., using their time to scan documents it had planned to spend other funds on to digitize.
In all of this, Wellesley’s trying to avoid dipping into its free cash and rainy day funds, though Jop quipped during the Advisory meeting: “I’d argue it’s raining.”