Wellesley Select Board budget summit takeaways

This whirlwind look at Tuesday’s Wellesley town budget summit, which featured discussion of Select Board department fiscal year 2025 operating budget requests, won’t do justice to the entire 3-hour, 45-minute meeting as seen in the Wellesley Media recording, nor nearly $33M in requests. But this summary should give you a flavor for the issues and items under discussion (the Wellesley Public Schools budget process is separately underway).

The budget requests from departments are presented against the backdrop of Select Board operating budget guidelines (3% increases in both personal services and expenses, with some exceptions for higher number from certain departments). Overall, the operating budget requests are well above guideline, though the process will continue over the weeks and months to come for the Select Board, departments, and the Advisory Committee on the way to presenting a balanced budget at Annual Town Meeting in the spring.

Select Board members are less concerned over individual department budgets being over if expenses can be defended, but rather, what can be done through adjustments and perhaps via the capital budget process to enable an overall balanced budget. This was a year when the Board realized it would need to make adjustments to salaries and other costs to bring Wellesley into alignment with the market. The town awaits more detailed information on healthcare costs and state funding that will help to firm up decisions.

You can dive into the budgets in detail on a dedicated page of the town website.

Hybrid police vehicles are hot

The Wellesley Police Department has taken advantage of grants and made other efforts in recent years to build the greenest fleet of vehicles it can as hybrid models have come up to department performance standards. It plans to continue doing so, but Police Chief Jack Pilecki shared that doing so is pricey, and pointed to a 6.98% increase in projected expenses mainly due to the rising price of in-demand hybrid police cars, which has gone up by about $6K. The department also no longer gets a $10K incentive for buying them. The police department acknowledged that at the current prices, the lifetime cost of the hybrid vehicles is actually higher than for gas-powered cars even with the need to buy half as much fuel for them and with lower maintenance costs. The town remains committed to buying the most fuel-efficient vehicles it can under climate action rules it has adopted.

Time running out for parking meters?

The town continues to see a steady recovery of revenue from parking meters and parking lots, though remains at a shortfall from pre-pandemic numbers. One question raised to Lt. Scott Showstead, who oversees parking and traffic, was whether the town might someday want to ditch parking meters. With the rise in use of phone apps vs. coins, it’s a discussion he said would be worth having as the town looks to redesign Wellesley Square. The town gets about $100K in coin revenue per year (and that number is expected to fall over time), but it costs $36K to process the money.

Filling out the firehouses

A big challenge that the Fire Department has been discussing with the town, including at the recent Special Town Meeting, is filling vacancies to the point where it can have 14 members per shift and slash overtime costs that have become routine (on top of this, the town is seeking to hire a permanent fire chief). Even though new firefighters are in the pipeline, others are slated to retire or are out with injuries or sickness. “This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away overnight, we understand this is going to take a couple of years,” said Deputy Chief Steve Mortarelli. Interim Chief David Soar said the current overtime situation “isn’t feasible” from an expense or safety standpoint, with some members working 100-plus hours a week. Added personnel costs would contribute to an operating budget request with expenses up more than 21%.

One expense issue that the department has on its radar is dealing with battery fires from electric vehicles, Mortarelli said. “That’s a huge, huge unanswered question,” he said, noting that this is a topic that comes up frequently at conferences. “We still don’t have answers as to how to put these fires out and what to do with them when we have them under control.” Newfangled extinguishers and other gear to deal with battery fires are emerging, he said.

COVID recovery at Council on Aging

Like other departments, the Council on Aging is still sorting out and realigning budgeting in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted in-person programming at the senior center. Now that such activities are back, the COA looks to hire a part-timer to assist with programming as it had before the pandemic. “Now that we’re back in person it would be nice to have a full complement of staff to assist with all the programming that is happening in house,” said Director Deborah Greenwood. While some departments in town, such as the library, have found challenges in hiring/retaining part-timers, the COA hasn’t had this issue.

Information Technology staffing challenges

IT Director Brian DuPont says he’s been in his job since 2015 and that his department has only been fully staffed over that time for a total of 3 months. The department currently seeks to fill 3 of its 8 positions, including the town’s first cybersecurity administrator. Higher quality applications are coming in for some positions, but the cybersecurity administrator position has remained a challenge to hire for.

The IT department will be busy next year getting people set up in the renovated Town Hall, and the budget request includes at $10K ask for maintenance and support of audiovisual gear and hybrid meeting technology.

Climate Action Committee going for grants

The budget request from the Climate Action Committee is modest, and stirred little discussion at the summit. But the town’s climate leaders have a full plate for next year, including the ramp-up of its energy coaching program (initially being rolled out with in a limited fashion and using volunteers). The climate team will focus on qualifying for and getting significant grants, including a $500K decarbonization grant to be used for the Warren Building renovation (in calendar year 2025) with the Facilities Management Department. Wellesley also seeks to qualify for the state’s Green Communities 2.0 program, aka, Climate Leader Communities, which means the town would need to have a zero-emissions vehicle first policy, a draft of which has begun to circulate.

FMD readies for new, renovated, and closed buildings

FMD’s operating budget request easily exceeds guidelines, with plans for 2 new custodial job positions (including a facility supervisor) raising the personal services expenses, and a handful of significant building changes leading FMD Director Joe McDonough to argue that this is actually a level-funded budget “believe it or not,” as he went on to explain.

FMD’s job next year includes the opening of 2 elementary schools, the closing of another, the reopening of Town Hall, and new structures at the Hunnewell track & field. The schools and town hall expenses would account for more than two-thirds of the overall projected FMD expense increases, McDonough said. The cost per square foot for the new buildings will be less, but because the schools are bigger than their predecessors, the overall expenses are up.

“I don’t know if the town will ever go through such an aggressive building campaign as is going on right now…,” McDonough said. “I don’t think next year will be as difficult, and I’m hoping it’s not. I’ve never had an operational budget like this ever: Capital is usually my challenge.”

Permits plus

The Building Department has seen a steady rise in building permits even during the pandemic period, and Wellesley Inspector of Buildings Michael Grant says this year has been marked by big projects, such as a $51M renovation of the Clapp Library at Wellesley College. The town has been collecting $3M-plus in fees annually from such permits.

Grant says his department is stable on the staffing front, and despite increases in permits and code complexity, the team has become more efficient through the availability of online permitting. Wellesley Executive Director Meghan Jop did point out though that if the town were to get another Nines-like multifamily housing project, that the department might need reinforcements.

Finance future

With longtime Finance Director/Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Strother retiring in early 2024 after a tenure with the town that began in 2006 (see job listing), the Finance & Treasurer budget request in part is setting up Wellesley for her successor. Strother cited cross-training within the departments for allowing it to operate smoothly pre-, during, and post-pandemic, as well as post-Strother.

Transportation manager proposal is back

Expenses within the Executive Director’s office will grow if Town Meeting approves the addition of a Transportation & Mobility manager, a proposed job that has been the subject of discussion at numerous past Select Board meetings. Early this year the Select Board decided to shelve the idea for this past spring’s Annual Town Meeting.

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