Town Meeting members started tackling the town’s $107 million budget Thursday night, though a vote on the largest budget recipient, the School Department, was postponed until Tuesday.
Town Meeting member and former Finance Committee member Christine Weithman made a motion to put off the $44 million budget, citing a lack of detailed information in the book prepared by the Finance Committee for the meeting. She said the sparse details were “very disrespectful” and showed a lack of transparency from the School Department.
Though the measure passed, Superintendent Peter Sanchioni said it would be impossible to prepare and mail supplemental information to Town Meeting members in ample time for Tuesday’s continuation of Town Meeting. The information, however, is online.
Town Meeting approved the public safety budgets, though Fire Chief James Sheridan said a few times Thursday night that the Fire Department budget was inadequate. He expects overtime costs to be more than $100,000 greater than what the town approved.
The town is losing a crossing guard, which is under the jurisdiction of the Police Department. Town Meeting member Nanci Farquharson urged the Police Department and School Department to have an open forum. “Parents are deeply concerned about the safety of their children,” she said.
The meeting started off with a presentation about the Expense Control Task Force, a committee formed by the Board of Selectmen in January 2008 to identify both short-term and longer-term systematic ways that Natick can save money. In February, all but one of the seven members resigned from the task force, citing apathy and resistance among town officials toward making meaningful changes.
A Town Meeting member made a motion in February to hear a report from the task force and former member Patrick Hayes made the presentation on Thursday. He outlined the committee’s two years worth of work, which included 27 meetings that lasted an average of two hours each, the interviewing of 19 department heads from school and town departments, and examining numerous documents and studies from neighboring towns and communities across the country.
Among the areas the task force recommended for further analysis was consolidation of the human resources, information systems, facilities management, and procurement and purchasing functions between the school and town; changing union contract language to save money; and changing scheduling practices to minimize overtime costs.
"We determined there is limited coordination, limited sharing of resources, and limited sharing of knowledge or best practices," said Hayes. "And we determined there was no compelling reason it has to be this way."
Selectman Josh Ostroff followed Hayes’s presentation with his own presentation as a representative of the Financial Planning Committee, which has members of the Board of Selectmen, Finance Committee, and School Committee, as well as the school superintendent and town administrator.
Ostroff said reining in health care costs is the highest priority of the town administration, and said the Financial Planning Committee is reviewing the task force’s recommendations. He said more collaboration is already happening between the schools and town, and in some cases, consolidation could be costly and add an additional layer of management.
Prior to the budget discussions, Town Administrator Martha White gave an overview of Natick’s budget situation, as well as a preview of coming years. Though cuts were partially mitigated by additional state funds for fiscal year 2011, White warned that future budget deficits could be $3.4 million in fiscal year 2012 and $6.6 million in fiscal year 2013, and urged prudence.
However, White said that local revenues have been up 2.9 percent this year. “This is the beginning of what we hope is a very good trend,” she said.
Megan McKee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.