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Williamstown Fin Comm Discusses Plan to Address FY22 Budget Gap
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:04AM / Monday, September 27, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Finance Committee last week discussed ways the town could address a $150,000 shortfall in the current town budget.
The majority of members expressing a preference said one option, a special town meeting, would not be their choice.
Fin Comm Chair Melissa Cragg laid out the problem and two possible strategies for filling the budget gap at the outset of Wednesday's meeting.
The shortfalls stem from severance payments agreed to with the former Williamstown Police Chief and former town manager, who each left the town's service in fiscal year 2021.
In FY22, the town is continuing to pay each of the departed officials, but the budget presented to the town at June's annual town meeting contained no reference to the severance payments and instead only included the usual line items for the two high-ranking public officials — each of whom presumably will be replaced before June 30, 2022, the end of the fiscal year.
Interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard prepared an estimate of the costs of filling those slots, plus an additional unbudgeted expense for his services in FY22: $75,000 for seven months of a new town manager, $40,000 for five months of a new police chief and $35,000 for five months of interim town manager services for a total of $150,000.
Cragg told her colleagues that Massachusetts General Law allows the Fin Comm, in conjunction with the Select Board, to make budget transfers between departments in the last two months of the fiscal year to plug spending gaps. Prior to that two-month point, the town manager can transfer within the budget centers delineated on the town meeting warrant.
Blanchard and Cragg agreed that, by using transfers, the town can fill in the holes. Cragg previously told that she believed the town had enough resources to pay the unbudgeted bills without requiring a special town meeting for new appropriations.
But that is the other option on the table.
"We have two options: have a special town meeting … or still live inside our [non-school] budget of $8,670,658," Cragg said. "If you do the math on that, given the relative smallness of $150,000, that's 1.73 percent of the [$8.6 million] total. It seems reasonable that we can live within that."
In addition, Cragg noted, the Finance Committee has a reserve account of $175,000 for unanticipated expenses — the mechanism that the Fin Comm used in July to plug holes in the FY21 budget created by the same issues addressed on Wednesday.
Of course, the severance packages were not "unanticipated" by the former town manager, who authored the FY22 budget, or the Select Board, which negotiated the former town manager's severance package and later voted, 5-0, to recommend town meeting's passage of the budget.
The former police chief left the town's service in December 2020 under an agreement that keeps him on the town's books through June 30, 2023. The former town manager announced his departure — after reaching an agreement with the Select Board — in February.
The budget was presented to the Finance Committee in March and sent to the floor of town meeting in June.
"My concern with this particular situation is these expenses were known at the time the FY22 budget was being developed," Dan Caplinger said on Wednesday evening. "They may not have been known by us, but they were known by certain people.
"If the public at 2021's town meeting was presented with inaccurate numbers, I think the best remedy is to go back to town meeting with accurate numbers and explain the reason for the disparity. It's not in our power to demand that. It's the Select Board that determines if there will be a special town meeting. Alternatively, if 200 registered voters of our community decide the Select Board hasn't done it and they want to do it, they can make written demand of the Select Board.'
Caplinger indicated he might sign such a petition if asked.
"Special town meeting is the appropriate way to re-establish confidence in the budget building and presentation that we had," Caplinger said. "That's just my view."
Cragg said the budget discrepancy already has led to some positive outcomes. She and Select Board Chair Andrew Hogeland have begun holding monthly meetings with Blanchard to track town expenses in real time and will continue to do so, in part, to ensure that the $150,000 in transfers will be available come May and June of next year.
"I think the combination of real time information and regularly scheduled meetings to be sure … " Cragg said. "I am personally confident that it was in anyone's heart to actively withhold information from us. I think there were mistakes made, and it was a very weird situation where the person whose severance we're talking about here this evening … It was a weird situation that I hope would never happen again."
Former Town Manager Jason Hoch, whose severance package was the topic of discussion on Wednesday, was asked point blank by a resident in a March Fin Comm meeting if the budget included "severance funds that we just don't see." Hoch gave a one word answer, "No."
Fin Comm member Elaine Neely said the entire FY22 budget review process was "confusing" due to the use of virtual meetings and online spreadsheets instead of the traditional hard copy budget books the Fin Comm is used to receiving. Paula Consolini said the fact that Hoch was negotiating his own severance (a process that ended before the Fin Comm reviewed the budget) added "complexity" to the review.
"I'll go out on a limb and say I wish I had asked better questions," Cragg said. "I keep saying, 'Geez, I should have asked whether there are any contingencies or leftover expenses related to former employees."
Michael Sussman indicated that a special town meeting at this point would only make existing strife in town — which led to the departure of Hoch and former Police Chief Kyle Johnson — even worse.
"We need to just move forward," Sussman said. "Having a special town meeting to create more division in this town is not going to be helpful.
"COVID occurred, we had two other things occurring at the same time. It will probably never happen again. We need to adjust the [FY]22 budget in a timely manner as the months go by."
Cragg said that discussing the shortfall and a planned solution now helps to re-establish the public's trust in the process, and she returned repeatedly to the fact that the shortfall is less than 2 percent of the town's non-school spending — and far less than that on a percentage basis when education costs are added in.
"We're disclosing that we have this issue, we're disclosing what the solution is, we're disclosing what the alternative is," Cragg said. "If this number were substantially larger, I'd agree with [Caplinger], but reasonable people can disagree reasonably."
Caplinger chose not to rebut any of the arguments against a special town meeting but said he needed to point out the mechanism that could bring one about.
"It is a small amount," Caplinger said. "It's something that if the residents of the town are comfortable with what we're doing in response to the situation, they won't want a special town meeting either."
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