New Model Predicts Belmont Budget Heading For Financial Cliff in Fiscal 2021

Photo: Members of the boards and committees discussing the new budget 

A budgetary roadmap provided by a UMass Boston-based advisory group shows Belmont falling off a steep fiscal cliff in two years time unless the town comes up with a new strategy to soften the landing.

At a joint meeting with the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and Warrant Committee on Monday, July 30 at Town Hall, consultants for the Edward J. Collins Center is forecasting a $2.3 million deficit in fiscal year 2021 which begins on July 1, 2020, due to what many municipalities are facing, a systemic structural deficit in which town expenditures are outpacing non-recurring revenue including money from the last Proposition 2 1/2 override.

“You basically have two years to resolve this matter,” said Stephen Cirillo, who with Anthony Torrisi presented a detailed forecasting model software program to the town as part of the state’s effort to provide communities with financial management best practices in the areas of fiscal forecasting, capital improvement planning and policies.

But rather than debate how best to resolve the deficit on the horizon, Selectmen Chair Adam Dash said “tonight is to ask questions about the model and the assumptions … Clearly, this is the beginning of a much longer conversation.”

In her first week on the job in January, Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin obtained a $30,000 Community Compact Grant from the state to create the forecasting program – think of it as a massive spreadsheet which permits  –  that Cirillo called a “powerful tool” that allows cities and towns “to look over the horizon to see what budgetary conditions will be in the future.”

Belmont’s budget planners in Town Hall, on the School Committee and with the fiscal watchdog Warrant Committee can now conduct “what if” analysis to see the effect of a policy decision – for instance, how a change to the amount employees  contribute to their health insurance – will affect the “gap” between revenue and appropriations, said Cirillo, who was director of finance for the Town of Brookline and Newton’s chief budget officer.

In the view of Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein, the forecasting model “is the most sophisticated effort to get our overall budget in a structure where it can analyze.” 

In addition to presenting this new financial toolkit, the consultants gave their assumptions on Belmont’s budget in the near future. Both Cirillo and Torrisi were impressed with how the town “stretched” the $4.5 million operational override (that was placed into an account called the general stabilization fund) past in 2015 providing funds until fiscal year 2020, two years longer than anticipated.

But the consultants could not see past the looming gap facing the town in 2020. While there will be some “unused capacity” in open receipts in years to come, “it will not solve all your problems.”And the largest problem will be the $2.3 million “hole” in the budget, said Cirillo.

Belmont’s school budget is saddled with three “budget busters” whose inflation rate is “unsustainable” moving forward. Collective bargaining, health insurance, and special education are growing at annual rates of 2.5 percent, 8 percent, and 7 percent respectively requiring a rethinking on controlling their increases, said Cirillo.

“Clearly there is a large implied deficit at about the time we had expected it,” said Epstein.

The most striking recommendation from the pair was for the town to no longer use free cash to either fill in budget gaps or to support the operating budget. Free cash has been a favorite stop gap in filling several “needs” from paying for the Belmont Center traffic and parking project and modular classrooms at the Chenery Middle and Burbank Elementary schools. 

Rather, they suggest that annually free cash be placed in a “new” general stabilization fund to maintain Belmont’s outstanding bond rating, currently at an AAA rate. They point to a number of capital projects in the pipeline including the new high school which will benefit from lower interest rates.