Pair Of Public Meetings This Week: Belmont Middle/High Building Committee And American Rescue Act

Photo: Two public forums will be held this week

The Select Board will be joining several committees and groups for two virtual joint public meetings that will effect the lives of every resident in Belmont.

On Tuesday, Aug. 17 at 7 p.m., the Select Board will be joined by the Belmont Middle and High School Building Committee and the School Committee to discuss aspects of the construction of the $295 million 7-12 school that has been in the news. One area that will be brought up will be design and construction concerns at Concord Avenue and Goden Street, the new traffic lights at the intersection, site design review as well as public comments on the evaluation of construction impacts to neighboring properties.

The Transportation Advisory Committee and the High School Traffic Working Group have also been invited to join the meeting.

The meeting will be conducted Via Zoom Meeting. By computer or smartphone, go to:
https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89055600185?pwd=alNQLzVHOFM3bEZuU2dUWjczaTVYdz09 and follow on-screen instructions.

On Wednesday, Aug. 18, the public is invited to join the Select Board’s joint meeting with the School, Warrant Committee, and Capital Budget Committee also at 7 p.m. via Zoom to discussing the how the town will distribute the approximately $7.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding the town received earlier in the year.

By computer or smartphone, go to: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84474554147

Both meetings can be seen live at the Belmont Media Center:
Channel 8 on Comcast
Channel 28 or 2130 on Verizon
Or watch online at belmontmedia.org/watch/govtv

If you have any questions, please reach out to the Town Administrator’s Office at townadministrator@belmont-ma.gov or call 617-993-2610

Public Meeting On Federal COVID Funds And State Aid Set For Wednesday, March 31

Photo: Poster to the meeting

The $8.6 million Belmont will receive from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan has been the topic of a heated debate ever since it was signed into law by President Biden on March 11.

In one corner are those who are attempting to defeat a $6.2 million Proposition 2 1/2 override who see the money filling town coffers with more than enough funds to render the override moot.

On the other side, proponents of the override contend that most of the cash is restricted to reimbursing town revenue lost due to COVID-19 and can’t be used to as a one-time stop gap for the town’s structural deficit.

And in the past three weeks, “I am seeing some things that are being misreported in regards to those numbers,” Town Administrator Patrice Garvin told the Select Board Monday, March 29.

In an attempt to provide a clearer picture of the funds and how they can be used for, the Financial Task Force II and Warrant Committee are inviting the public to a virtual presentation to share the latest information regarding the new Federal Aid Bill and also provide an update on projected state aid in the coming fiscal year 2022.

When: Wednesday, March 31
Time: 7 p.m.
Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/87434286149

Questions will be taken at the conclusion of the presentation period
through the Q&A function. The meeting facilitator will inform those
attending when questions can be submitted.

First Peek At Fiscal Year ’22 Budget: Public Meeting On Dec. 9

Photo: The town created its FY ’22 budget with the expectations that voters will approve a Prop 2 1/2 override in April.

John Phelan express the obvious in his opening remarks when presenting this coming year’s school budget on Monday, Nov. 23.

“We look towards a very unique year in budgeting in a very unique year in our time,” said Belmont schools superintendent as the town and school provided the public its first peek at the fiscal year 2022 budgets.

The “unique” year Phelan mentioned was seen during a topsy turvy nine months in which Belmont’s finances took a beating and where the town budget was revised twice – and likely a third time – as COVID-19 played havoc to fiscal assumptions.

During this upheaval, the fiscal year ’22 budget was being cobbled together. At first glance, a growing degree of normalcy has returned to the budgets: expenses such as overtime and road repair funding are back while the school district is seeking to add educators even as over all enrollment has declined by 250 students.

But the documents Phelan and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin presented before a mega joint meeting of the Select Board, Financial Task Force and the School, Warrant and Capital Budget committees are unique insofar as they are contingent on voters passing a multi-million dollar Prop 2 1/2 override at this April’s Town Election.

Just how big is the override’s price tag? That figure remains up in the air. What is known as currently calculated, the all town ’22 budget is approximately $8.1 million in the red.

It will be an especially unique new year as the town and schools will present sometime early in the new year a version of the fiscal ’22 budget if the override fails at the ballot box.

“So we will be preparing two budgets this year,” said Phelan, to allow the public see the impact on services and staffing with and without override funds.

The town will hold a Zoom public meeting on the impact of a Prop 2 1/2 override on the fiscal year ’21 budget on Wednesday, Dec. 9 at 7 p.m.

For Town Administrator Patrice Garvin, while “we are inundated every day with what is horrible about 2020,” she said that there are reasons to see the past year in “a positive note”: town services were continued to be delivered while measures were taken to soften the blow from revenue losses including hiring freeze and maximizing turn backs from school and town departments to build up the town’s free cash account.

Due to its conservative approach to the operating budget, reaching out for grants and award – including $2.1 million it received from the federal government’s CARES Act – and seeking new sources of revenue (the McLean development and two marijuana host community agreements), the town retained its top ranked triple A credit rating as it approached developing the coming budget.

All-Town Budget

What is known at this early stage of the budget process is the combined town/school budget- excluding the enterprise funds of $6.9 million – is being set at $144.5 million, a 3.8 percent increase from the pre-pandemic fiscal ’21 budget.

The FY ’22 budget breaks down as:

  • Town: $43.5 million
  • Schools: $67.6 million
  • Fixed costs: $31.4 million
  • Capital budget: $2 million

Due to the wild fiscal year the town underwent in 2020, the percentage change between the ’21 and ’22 budgets are significantly different. If compared with the “original” fiscal year 2021 – the pre-pandemic budget from March 2020 – the fiscal year ’22 budget has increased by 3.8 percent, which is in line with annual budget growth over the past decade. Substitute the original ’21 financials with the COVID-19 budget – in which town and school stripped out $7 million in expense savings – the increase jumps to 9.2 percent.

Highlighting the town budget, Garvin pointed out that while FY ’22 will be a minimal level service budget, there will be personnel adds to a few departments such as a social worker for the Council on Aging as well as a newly created town-wide procurement manager.

The town will increase the tree budget by $50,000 for the increasing number of damaged timber and replenishing deferred expenses such as $450,000 for equipment and furnishings for town departments as well as bringing back overtime.

View a detailed PowerPoint presentation of the ’22 town budget here.

Reporting on the schools, Phelan said while its current fiscal budget did take a significant hit due to COVID-19, it was able to employ educators to support remote learning and secure supplies and computers through federal grants.

Because those expenses were paid for with one-time funds, Phelan said the district will attempt to carry those expenses over to FY ’22 but not embed them into the annual budget but rather place them in what is being called the “COVID parking lot.”

“So we only provide these service (including technology specialist, aides and nurses) and ask for the funds if they are actually needed,” said Phelan.

The schools will be budgeting to a model created by the Financial Task Force II which has been working for eight months with the district and the Warrant Committee on the assumptions of anticipated expenses.

The detail presentation from Superintendent Phelan of the FY ’22 school budget can be found here.

At the end of the day, the preliminary fiscal ’22 is swimming in the red by $8.1 million, or about two-thirds as large as the $12.5 million in override funds the Select Board is seeking at April’s Town Election. The Board has said the override amount that will be before voters in the spring will be reduced sometime in the next two months.

To provide residents the real world consequence of the override measure, Garvin and Phelan will be creating a second budget over the next month of two that will show the services and staff cuts to town and schools if voters reject the override.

While both the town and schools expenses are set, the more interest part of the meeting was how the revenue side was looking. There were two nice surprises on that side of the ledger: the first a great leap in free cash to $11.2 million. A detailed explanation on this year’s free cash account can be found here.

There is also a healthy amount of state aid – $3.2 million – the town was not anticipating in fiscal ’21 as the town expected a drop of receipts by 20 percent. But after the budget was approved, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration stated it would maintain the same amount of aid in ’21 as in the previous year.

But Garvin said the restored state revenue – which has yet to arrive from the state – is slated to go into fiscal year 2023 free cash account.

And every penny of funding is needed as the town has yet to find an answer to the bain of Belmont’s fiscal existence: a persistent structural deficit. With Belmont’s real estate classification at more than 90 percent residential and new growth limited due to a lack of open space, the “Town of Homes” is hamstrung by the four decade old Proposition 2 1/2 that places a 2.5 percent ceiling on total property taxes annually – which makes up 77 percent of tax receipts – as well as the 2.5 percent limit on property tax increases.

Budget Bloodbath: Belmont Finances ‘Severely Impacted’ Due To COVID-19; Cuts In Basic Services, A Call For Layoffs, Furloughs

Photo: Patrice Garvin, Belmont Town Administrator

It’s ugly. And it’s likely to get uglier.

That’s the first impression of Belmont’s town finances after initial estimates of the impact on the current and next year’s budgets by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Town Administrator Patrice Garvin speaking before the Warrant Committee via video conference on April 1.

With all town departments already “running lean” before the pandemic struck “another cut is going to severely impact the operations and the services we provide the residents of the town,” said Garvin.

While there are “too many uncertainties” to make any good estimates of the likely shortfall, it’s nearly certain that the anticipated pronounced loss of revenue will place a strain on the current fiscal year 2020 budget while triggering real pain in next year’s fiscal 2021 budget – which begins July 1 – from lose of basic government services and likely layoffs and furloughs of town workers, according to Garvin.

“Direr but probably realistic,” said Warrant Committee Chair Laurie Slap hearing members reiterate their belief that revenues will drop significantly with resulting cuts in expenditures.

The sudden shut off of the revenue spigot comes as the town was close to finalizing the fiscal ’21 budget that was going to be brought before Town Meeting by the Select Board. The last draft presented to the Warrant Committee, the Town Meeting’s financial “watchdog,” projected the ’21 budget at $136.6 million.

For instance, a 10 percent cut in just one line item, total state aid in fiscal ’21, would force the town to slash $1.2 million from the budget that has a revenue gap of $5.6 million. Garvin noted state aid was reduced by 20 percent between 2008 and 2009 when the last economic downturn occurred.

The town is currently looking back at town budgets in 2008 and 2009 when the country last entered into recession to get an idea of how revenues took a hit.

Override in doubt?

In addition to services, Belmont, according to Select Board Chair Tom Caputo “will need to think long and hard about whether or not … our plans for an override in November still, in fact, make sense.” The proposed “operational” override – in the $6 million range – was seen as critical in meeting town services and needs by the school district in managing a continued surge in enrollment.

The rapidly moving series of events of the past six weeks due to strategies to halt the spread of the coronavirus has Garvin and her staff attempting to hit a moving target to provide the Warrant Committee some semblance of confidence it is receiving figures it can analyze.

When the seriousness of the spreading pandemic was fully understood two weeks ago, “we quickly came to the realization that fiscal year ’21 and some of fiscal ’20 could be severely impacted” most notably by the loss of state and local revenue, said Garvin.

Now and moving forward, the town has been “scrambling” to review its revenue projections from its February budget estimates, said Garvin.

Caputo said the massive disruption in the economy from the coronavirus requires the town “to rethink our [fiscal] ’21 budget that we laid out several months” which “was one that was going to work if everything remained as we had hoped” before the COVID-19 virus caused commerce and life to be upended.

While the largest sources of revenue, real estate property taxes with an estimated revenue of $92.2 million in fiscal ’21, continue to show high compliance levels, the town is preparing for significant reductions in the aforementioned state aid and local revenue collected from fees and services.

In a four-page overview of the ’21 budget, the town has been working on, the majority of line items are color-highlighted as likely to experience a drop in revenue.

Areas where revenue numbers will shrink from the February earlier estimates will be in new growth (expected at $920,000), meals ($234,000) and excise taxes ($3.7 million) and as will parking tickets and fees from building permits. The Recreation Department was seen as generating $1 million into the town’s coffers yet now could see receipts plummet if the Underwood Pool can not open for the summer recess.

While many of the fees are relatively small – from a few thousand to over a million dollars – if each takes a significant hit, they will add to a larger deficit in the fiscal year ’21 budget projections.

“In a nutshell, [fiscal year] ’21 is just a work in progress,” said Garvin. “We’re going to just keep running different scenarios … and seeing where the [Select] Board and the Warrant Committee wants to go.”

Warrant Committee member Ellen Schrieber noted that losses in fees and other revenue in the current year will likely damped estimates of the number of reserves – mostly from the town’s free cash account – which was expected to be passed forward into fiscal ’21 to fund gaps in the budget.

Garvin agreed, saying free cash “is where we’re going to get the hit next year.”

Hiring Freeze, Layoffs Possible

While the budget outlook is far from clear, the town is already formulating “initiatives” to begin filling the gulf of red ink facing the town. The likely first step will be a “thoughtful” hiring freeze, according to Caputo, as well as keeping a cap on overtime payments with the exception of public safety and a possible town-wide spending freeze with only “the most critical and essential items.” according to Garvin.

One significant area the town and Select Board are “brainstorming” to reduce expenses is looking hard at salaries which is the “primary” expenditure in the budget, said Caputo.

Warrant Committee member Geoffrey Lubien breached the topic of possibly furloughing town employees, noting that while not ideal, it would allow those individuals to secure unemployment benefits.

Garvin said that such conversations are occurring with the Belmont town counsel as nearly all the employees are union-represented and there needs to “decipher” the difference between a furlough and a layoff.

Lubien did followup saying reducing the workforce should be a last resort since “to let people go and then try to get them back is very difficult.”

One area of town that was only briefly touched but which looms large in town finances was schools. Yet Warrant Committee member Chris Doyle was blunt on her view that significant savings should come from the district that she believes isn’t functioning at full capacity with the schools closed and students being taught remotely.

“There is zero chance that teachers are spending anywhere close” to the same time they were in school “and it makes me want to be very encouraging for a broad furlough in the school department,” said Doyle.

Mike Crowley, the school committee representative to the Warrant Committee, felt layoffs “isn’t going to help the kids” during a difficult and at times problematic transition from educating students in a classroom setting to one at home in front of a computer.

The town is also discussing the possibility of using a provision in Gov. Charlie Baker’s Declaration of Emergency which allows municipalities to run a budget deficit due to “natural disasters on direct coronavirus expenses” The law gives a city or town breathing room to recover from a calamity by allowing the deficit to be paid off over the subsequent three fiscal years.

But for now, Garvin will be meeting with department heads and the school district to discuss where cuts can be made in an already lean program while waiting for more information from the state and town.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and we’re just kind of moving along, keeping our eyes on what we think is going to be most impacted and go from there,” said Garvin. “I could put something together for today and a month [from now] it could be completely different.”

Q&A: Warrant Meeting On Articles Before Special Town Meeting Tuesday, Oct. 30

Photo: Poster for the event 

The public and Town Meeting members are invited to attend a Warrant Briefing tonight, Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

Residents and voters will have the opportunity to ask questions about the Warrant Articles prior to Special Town Meeting scheduled to begin on Tuesday, Nov 13.

The articles that will be before the “Special” will include:

  • Appropriation of debt to build the Belmont High School construction project.
  • Amendment to the zoning bylaw to create an overlay district along South Pleasant Street.
  • Amendment to the zoning bylaw to create an adult use marijuana overlay district.
  • A Community Preservation Committee off cycle request for $400,000 for the design of an Alexander Avenue underpass.
  • A citizen petition to extend the temporary moratorium on marijuana establishment for an additional six months til June 30, 2019.
  • Reduction of the senior property tax deferral interest rate from eight percent to four-and-a half percent.

Town officials and department heads will be present to provide information. Roy Epstein, chair of the Warrant Committee, will preside. Tonight’s meeting is cosponsored by the Warrant Committee and the Belmont League of Women Voters Education Fund.

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.  

Town Meeting Preview: Warrant Briefing Monday Night

Photo: Belmont Town Meeting in action.

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring the annual warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members with the non-financial articles on the Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, April 23 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St. This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the 2018 Town Meeting beginning in one week on Monday, April 30

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will preside.

League of Women Voters Holding Special Town Meeting Preview Monday

Photo: Modular classrooms.

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring a warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members and residents with the articles in the Special Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the Special Town Meeting to be held in one week on Monday, Nov. 13. Articles will include the financing of modular classrooms at the Burbank school and changing the selection of Planning Board members from appointed to elected.

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will lead the meeting.

Town Meeting Preview: Warrant Briefing Monday Night at the Beech

Photo: Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein

The Belmont League of Women Voters and Warrant Committee is co-sponsoring the annual warrant briefing to acquaint Town Meeting members and residents with the non-financial articles on the Town Meeting warrant.

The meeting will take place Monday evening, April 24 at 7:30 p.m. in the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

This is an opportunity for Town Meeting members and the general public to ask questions of town officials and department heads concerning any of the warrant articles prior to the 2017 Town Meeting beginning in one week on Monday, May 1. 

Warrant Committee Chair Roy Epstein will preside.

This year, Town Meeting Moderator Michael Widmer will hold an orientation/information session for new Town Meeting members at 6:30 p.m. immediately prior to the warrant discussion. All Town Meeting member is welcome to attend this session.

Proposed ’18 Town Budget Tops $110 Million, Up 3.6%

Photo: David Kale, Belmont Town Administrator

Belmont’s next budget will see healthy increases in both the town and schools with some hopeful news on “stretching out” the monies that came from the 2015 Proposition 2 1/2 override.

The proposed fiscal 2018 town-wide budget – which begins on July 1, 2017 – is pegged at $110,210,440, an increase of $3.9 million or 3.6 percent, according to outgoing Town Administrator David Kale who presented the budget before a joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen, School and Warrant committees at Town Hall on Monday, Feb. 13.

The presentation consisted of the first preliminary outline – albeit a relatively detailed blueprint – of the town’s financial balance sheet which will be voted on at the annual Town Meeting in June.

When asked by Selectman Jim Williams how complete an outline was before them, Kale affirmed it was more than “90 percent” complete, noting that changes will be coming to the town’s revenue line items. He pointed to state aid to cities and towns coming from Beacon Hill will not be finalized until later in the spring. Kale said it is likely that Belmont will see a small increase in the $600,000 forecast heading to Belmont from the State House.

The biggest component of the budget is, as it is every year, the public schools which will come in at $53.1 million, an increase of $3.1 million from 2017, a 6.0 percent jump. According to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan, the jump in costs are directly related to the continued unprecedented increase in students enrolling in Belmont schools. 

Phelan said annually 100 students are entering the Belmont system straining the district with the number of pupils in classrooms, the need for more teachers and staff as well as requiring the district to purchase a second set of modular classrooms in the coming year just to keep pace. 

Expenses from the “town” side of the budget – town services and public safety – will see a 4.2 percent increase (approximately $1.6 million) from 2017 to $38.4 million.

Fixed costs – debt payments, retirement assessments, road repair – which makes up 16 percent of the total budget will see an increase of $600,000 to $17.2 million.

On the revenue side, Kale said 90 cents of every dollar coming into the town’s coffers were from real estate and property taxes ($88.5 million, 80 percent) and state aid from the State House ($10 million, 9 percent). Total property taxes will see an increase of $3.2 million or 3.7 percent from 2017 figures.

Belmont is expecting to see in fiscal 2018 a boost in other revenue sources including $200,000 in meals, motor vehicle, and payments instead of taxes and another $200,000 in local receipts.

Kale, who is leaving for a position at the City of Cambridge in March, noted that due to favorable increases in “new growth” and state aid, the town will only require $1.3 million from the General Stabilization Fund, the $4.5 million in additional funds approved in a Prop 2 1/2 override in April 2015, to balance the budget.

Kale said through belt-tightening and a jump in revenue; budget planners were able to cut nearly in half the original $2.2 million they scheduled to take from the line item. He said that figure could be reduced further if added revenues come to Belmont. 

By reducing its reliance on the stabilization fund this year, Kale said the town could rely on it for more than the three years it was originally slated to last.