|Williamstown's FY23 Tax Levy Hiked to Pay for WPD Settlement|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
05:07PM / Monday, July 18, 2022
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board and Finance Committee agreed last month to raise the fiscal 2023 tax levy by $270,000 to pay for an out-of-court settlement with a former sergeant in the Williamstown Police Department.
The additional quarter million dollars to be raised through property taxes is over and above the appropriations approved by the annual town meeting last month.
The decision was made at a meeting during which the two panels jointly agreed to several FY22 budget adjustments to cover costs arising from the fallout of an August 2020 whistleblower lawsuit filed by then Sgt. Scott McGowan.
Taxpayers will foot the $270,000 bill through taxation in the fiscal year that began on July 1 even though a second lawsuit from McGowan was settled in November 2021
, a settlement that included his departure from the Police Department.
Town Accountant Anna Osborn told the Select Board and Fin Comm that the state Department of Revenue advised the town it could include the $270,000 on the town's tax rate recapitulation form on Page 2 on a line marked "final court judgments."
The recapitulation, or recap, sheet is used by DOR to calculate a municipality's tax rate from its total expenses for the fiscal year, its anticipated receipts (from permits, fees, etc.) and the total valuation of property in a city or town.
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley explained why the $270,000 expenditure could not be included in the FY23 budget that residents approved earlier in June.
"The amount was spent earlier this year when the judgment was reached," Daley wrote in an email responding to a request for comment. "That means it was not money to be spent in FY23, and, as such, it should not be in that budget.
"It really wouldn't be a good idea to appropriate a budget in anticipation of litigation settlements or judgments because that would tell the litigant how much to ask for, limiting negotiation. So the current year will never have a budget for the judgment. Additionally, the next year's budget is not the right place because the money has already been spent. So you are left with adding the money to the recap sheet."
Finance Committee member Dan Caplinger suggested that rather than add the entire $270,000 expense to the FY23 tax levy, the town should pay some portion of it with anticipated free cash from the FY22 budget. Through conservative estimates of revenues and expenses, the town historically has been left with "surplus" cash when it closes the books at the end of its fiscal year; the free cash generally is applied to the subsequent year's budget in order to reduce taxation.
"I understand that we can [add $270,000 to the FY23 tax levy] under the recapitulation sheet guidelines," Caplinger said "The question is whether we should do that."
Noting that the town was running more than $800,000 under budget with bills still coming in as the committees met on June 22 (eight days before the close of the fiscal year), Caplinger argued that Williamstown would have enough money in the FY22 budget to at least make a dent in the settlement cost.
"We have some amount – probably not $885,000 but probably well above $270,000 – that we could transfer from unspent amounts, not increase the tax burden due to this expense and take it as a hit to free cash, which is what the free cash is for: unexpected, unforeseen expenses like this," Caplinger said. "It's one of the reasons the citizens trust the town with free cash, so we can cover things like this.
"I'm a little confused why we aren't choosing to do that."
Osborn and then-interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard advised against such a transfer within the FY22 budget, arguing that there were too many unknowns on June 22 and even well into the month of July to be sure that the overage would be there.
In the meeting, Daley also made a case for not following Caplinger's lead.
"The constraints, to me, on that are our potential uses for free cash, and we do have some allocated uses that we like to do every year," Daley said in the meeting telecast on the town's community access channel, Willinet. "We use a certain amount to reduce the tax rate. It's something like $250,000 we use. If we don't put this [$270,0000] on the recap sheet, we may not be able to do that reduction in the future year.
"They're essentially the same number. So, at the end of the day, I think we're talking about a timing issue."
Daley argued that by putting the cost of the McGowan settlement on the recap sheet, the town would be more transparent than had it chosen to move funds around within the FY22 budget.
"The second thing is … we are entering a time in which, I think, expenses will be harder," Daley said. "I would rather have a little more potential free cash cushion going into next year to deal with those potential overages."
"I guess I'd just rebut that our families and taxpayers are in exactly the same boat," he said. "By preserving that flexibility at the town level, you take it away at the individual level. There's always that balance. … It's just a different way of thinking about it."
Caplinger was the lone dissenting vote in approving a $50,000 budget transfer to which he sought to add additional transferred funds for the McGowan settlement. The vote was 9-1 with four members of the Select Board (Daley, Randal Fippinger, Andy Hogeland and Jeff Johnson) and six members of the Fin Comm (Caplinger, Melissa Cragg, Paula Consolini, Elaine Neely, Fred Puddester and Michael Sussman) in attendance.
Caplinger then asked whether the Select Board would consider a second joint meeting in July if more was known about the FY22 expenses at a later date that might allow an additional transfer of funds within that budget. The boards agreed that Fin Comm Chair Cragg could communicate with Daley to request such a meeting if she desired; Cragg confirmed to iBerkshires.com last week that she did not make such a request.
The recap sheet, which is completed by Osborn, the town assessor and the town manager, is completed in the summer in time for the Select Board's tax classification hearing, usually in August, when the board gives final signoff to submit the papers to the Department of Revenue.
The Finance Committee at the June meeting also took the routine step of transferring money from the its reserve account to cover a deficit in the town's line item for snow and ice removal. The commonwealth allows municipalities to run a deficit in that item due to the fluctuation in costs associated with plowing.
The Fin Comm and the Select Board together are authorized under the 2016 Municipal Modernization Act to jointly agree to transfers between departments spelled out in the budget approved by voters at town meeting.
Osborn requested three such transfers, including the one that was approved on the 9-1 vote.
The first sought a $15,000 transfer to the town counsel line that, as of June 22, was running about $10,000 in the red.
"We've had a heck of a lot of public records requests this year," Osborn told the panels. "KP Law reviews a great deal of those. That's really the reason for the overage in that line."
In answer to a question from Caplinger, Osborn explained that while the town can "pass through" expenses for things like photocopying to those requesting public information, it cannot charge members of the public for attorney's fees related to the requests.
The second transfer involved an additional $94,000 to the town manager line to pay for Blanchard's services in FY22. Because the previous town manager failed to account
for both his severance pay and a salary for someone to do the job after he left in spring 2021, the town had a shortfall in the FY22 budget.
Those two transfers passed unanimously.
Osborn also sought a $50,000 transfer to the Select Board's budget to cover legal fees directly related to the McGowan settlement and an independent investigation of the WPD. That is the transfer to which Caplinger sought to add funds.