The Halifax Finance Committee met Monday, Nov. 18, for a preliminary budget meeting with selectmen and other department heads. Those in attendance included the Chair of the Board of Selectmen Troy Garron, Selectman Gordon Andrews, current assistant superintendent Jill Proulx (newly voted as the next Silver Lake Regional School District Superintendent), SLRD Director of Business Services Christine Healy, and Fire Chief Jason Viveiros.
Town Administrator Charlie Seelig led the budget discussion, handing out what he calls the “one sheet” that provided some preliminary budget predictions. Seelig explained, “What I try to do every year is come up with what I call the one sheet that ended up this year being two sheets. It’s basically a very 30,000 feet up type of look at the upcoming year. I’m not getting, for the most part, into individual line items.” Seelig went on to explain that he always leans conservative in his estimates when beginning the budget process as it is easier to add money in later in the budget cycle than it is to take money out.
Halifax is run under a revenue budget rather than an expense budget that means when preparing the operating budget, the town is limited in the amount of money that can be spent. Proposition 2 ½ allows for only a 2 ½ percent increase annually. Revenue from new growth including new commercial buildings, all subdivisions, etc. are also added to the levy limit. Seelig said that the town had $135,000 in new growth last year and he conservatively estimates $100,000 of new growth this year. Debt exclusions as voted during town elections are also included. Active debt exclusions in Halifax include money from when the middle school and high school were built as well as the new roof and siding projects at the elementary school. Seelig said that as of right now the estimate for what can be raised by property tax bills stands at $17,800,000.
While property taxes make up the largest portion of town revenue there are other areas that also contribute. Local receipts including items such as ambulance bills or building permits and state aid coming mainly from Chapter 70 funding for the schools. Seelig said that there was no deficit in the local receipts and anticipated being able to raise the estimate for that particular revenue. One of the challenges for Halifax, as with Silver Lake as a whole, is that they are set to receive only the minimum amount per pupil under Chapter 70. This means that any increases needed from the schools needs to come from Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton.
Seelig explained that even before going to town meeting, it is necessary to set aside money for a series of assessments in this case totaling $203,000. Amongst these are abatements for property tax exemptions including those for veterans, the elderly, and the disabled. According to Seelig, there is a little over $25,000,000 available to the town to spend at town meeting. Assuming there will be no further changes, the operating budget for the current year is set to spend $24,400,000.
Seelig further explained some of the large line items as well as some of the changes that would benefit the budget. The larger line items include an increase in health insurance premiums for town employees as well as the town’s payment into Plymouth County retirement. To the benefit of the budget, the principal interest on the roof and siding project at the elementary school will be down from last year and the debt service for the landfill will also be down.
Seelig explained, “There are a lot of unknowns. We don’t know what the school budgets look like right now. We could put numbers in there… but for the purposes of when I did this work, I didn’t make any assumptions about that.” Andrews, who serves as selectman as well as on both the regional school committee and elementary school committee, spoke about some of the school’s likely requests including a new allied health teacher and a potential nurse manager position. Gordon said, “From my perspective, what I’ve seen when I’ve sat in your chairs, we’ve seen Silver Lake continue to grow. It was about 600 two years ago, to about 660 this current year. My guess is you’re going to see it, just the lion’s increase of $700,000, so if we’re a third of that you’re looking at over $200,000 just for Silver Lake just to keep level.” He continued, “My guess for the elementary school would be anywhere from 135 to 150. Those are just guesses at this point in time.”
Seelig ended his presentation saying, “We’re in good shape in the sense of no crisis, we’re not in the shape to simply say we can fund anything we want.” Tarsi mentioned to those present the $300,000 buffer that exists because the town is not taxing to its full capacity. Tarsi said that the buffer has been maintained for as long as she has been serving on the committee. The Finance Committee has not yet discussed whether or not to continue that practice this year, but Tarsi did say, “We’ve really protected that money to ensure that we’re easing the burden as much as we can on property owners in the town.”
Next steps in the budget process will include a letter with a synopsis of Seelig’s presentation going out the first week in December. By January, budgets will be submitted for the Finance Committee’s review. From January through March, the Finance Committee will be inviting department heads to attend their meetings to speak on their budgets. Each department will also be assigned a liaison on the Finance Committee to work with directly,. Tarsi said, “We are very committed to an open line of communication. We’re going to ask the same questions of everybody, there’s no special treatment, we will be completely willing to listen and be very candid with you about whatever the prospects are.” By early April, the town will have a final budget.
The Finance Committee also interviewed Drew McGlincy for one of the open FinCom spots. Chair Melinda Tarsi, who is currently serving in her fourth cycle on the committee, asked McGlincy why he was interested in serving. “Just trying to get involved. It seems like a good idea to do things outside of work, get involved in the community,” McGlincy said. McGlincy also provided that he studied both finance and information systems engineering in school. In addition to Tarsi, Frederick McGovern, Bill McAvoy, and newest member Cheryll Zarella Burke were also present. Each of the members introduced themselves to McGlincy and Tarsi provided him with an overview of the duties and responsibilities of the committee. McGlincy asked the committee for their advice and both Tarsi and McAvoy recommended a number of training resources including the Financial Policy Handbook and training sessions run by both the Association of Town Finance Committees and the Division of Local Services through the Department of Revenue Services.
Tarsi explained, “The big thing is there is no educational or occupational requirements to be on the finance committee, you just have to be willing to listen and to be candid with folks; that’s the ultimate kind of set of qualifications. We have really respectful conversations. We don’t always agree with each other, and that wouldn’t be healthy if we did, but we’ve never come to shouting. It’s never been mean or rude.” She continued, “We don’t always agree but we are all here for the same reason; we all want to make the community better for our neighbors.”
Tarsi entertained a motion to recommend the appointment of Drew McGlincy to the Finance Committee for the longest term available. Both Tarsi and Zarella Burke voted in favor while McAvoy was opposed and McGovern abstained. The next step for McGlincy will be to appear before the Board of Selectmen for an appointment meeting.