Wellesley Board of Selectmen Chair Marjorie Freiman wrapped up the Oct. 14 BoS meeting by remarking “Hopefully next week is a little more upbeat than this week.”
As it turned out, not so much.
Not that the Oct. 19 meeting didn’t have bright spots, including news at the end that the town looks to have $382,000 in complete streets funding coming its way for work on the Great Plain Avenue rotary project. Hey, those orange barrels ain’t cheap.
But the fiscal year ’22 cash capital budget talk kicked off by town Financial Director & CFO Sheryl Strother was far from uplifting despite her hopeful attitude (check out the Wellesley Media meeting recording starting at about the 2-hour, 38-minute mark).
COVID-19 has made its mark already on town finances, gutting parking revenue, for instance, and taking its toll on building permits and more. The Board of Selectmen and other town officials need to take the pandemic’s likely effects into account as they project for FY22-24. The town earlier this month sent Town Meeting Members an update on FY21’s townwide financial plan.
The new focus is on FY22, which based on current guidelines would result in a $7M-plus deficit. Challenges in balancing the budget include how to work with the school department, which is angling to spend above the 2.5% increase guideline from the BoS in an effort to retain current staffing levels and to address special education and other expected costs. Questions arose about whether school costs could shrink if enrollment continues to decline, and whether perhaps less money than is budgeted for unemployment insurance will really be necessary for those teachers who are working under 1-year contracts.
The much smaller health department will not surprisingly need a bigger staff and more resources to address COVID-19, flu, mental health, and other issues.
The BoS made numerous references to possibly dipping into free cash, all the while starting talk about debt tolerance. The board touched briefly on possible”levers,” from reducing health insurance costs to hiring freezes, that could be at their disposal.
But before we get there, departments across town will be asked to rethink their capital plans. “I believe that we can get significant capital reductions to get within policy. I think that the boards understand the need for that,” Strother said.
All this against a backdrop of the usual uncertainty about state and federal assistance going forward.
Freiman said: “The picture is not pretty and if you look at ’23 and ’24 it’s not much better.”
Board member Lisa Olney added later on: “This is pretty grim.”
While the town’s options could be limited, Board member Tom Ulfelder stressed the need for the board “to reinforce our commitment to avoid drifting back into deferred maintenance…there’s a reason the Facilities Management Department exists.” Costly lessons have been learned by deferring maintenance on buildings, like the old high school, he said.
Freiman concluded that “it’s not going to be easy, we may not have a way around making some very, very difficult decisions.”
An interboard meeting scheduled for Oct. 29 should help provide some possible answers.