The Long & Winding Road to a Balanced Budget


For those who had clamored since before April’s Annual Town Meeting for a three-way meeting of the Selectmen, Finance Committee and School Committee to look at the town’s finances, the first public meeting of the Tri-Board on June 11 must have been something of a disappointment.

The residents of the town of Wakefield, Massachusetts who advocated for a Tri-Board Summit were by and large the same group that led the charge at Annual Town Meeting to “send a message” and pass higher-than-recommended budgets for the School Department, Police, Fire, DPW and library. Even after the May 27 referendum reality check, their actions still left the town with an $850,000 overall budget deficit for FY09.

After succeeding in unbalancing the town’s budget, they kept up the pressure for a Tri-Board Summit. Surely such a meeting of the minds would discover a happy way out of the town’s financial plight – perhaps a pot of gold that had been overlooked previously. But what did the Tri-Board do at its very first official meeting?

It said, “Balance the budget first, then we’ll talk.”

The Board of Selectmen had already called a Special Town Meeting for June 30 in hopes of balancing the FY09 budget once and for all by reinstating the original 2.2 percent across-the-board budget reductions that Annual Town meeting had undone. The Tri-Board overwhelmingly voted to endorse rolling back the School, Police, Fire, DPW and library budgets to their original Finance Committee recommended levels.

Probably not what the Purveyors of Information had in mind when they collected all those signatures demanding a Tri-Board meeting.

Back in April, when Annual Town Meeting was busy putting back into various budgets money that the town doesn’t have, amendments were proposed to make such additional funding conditional on a Prop. 2½ override. Each time, the same people who voted to increase the budgets voted down a mechanism to fund them.

One resident stood at Town Meeting and said that she was puzzled by “how we’re deciding to spend money we don’t have.” She pointed out that without defining a way to raise money, “deciding to spend it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Some of us thought that there must be some hidden strategy behind simultaneously voting for funds and voting against any mechanism for raising them. Surely there had to be some method to the madness.

But there was none.

Tri-Board/FinCom member Al Palmerino summed it up at the June 11 Tri-Board meeting.

“I don’t believe that the town should be using a credit card type financial philosophy,” Palmerino said, “of spending money first – as was done at the Annual Town Meeting – and deciding how to pay for it later. The town should not be spending money without an accompanying means of supporting revenue.”

I’m guessing that’s not what the activists who demanded the Tri—Board summit were hoping to hear at the very first meeting. They also probably weren’t thrilled when Palmerino started talking about Prop. 2½ overrides.

“We must be straight and honest with the public,” the veteran FinCom member said, “that a single override is not a panacea or a resolution.” Palmerino pointed out that as the town depletes the increased funding from one override, another and then another will be required.

At Annual Town Meeting in April, School Committee member Carmen Urbonas was part of the chorus calling for a summit meeting of the three boards. Of the ten Tri-Board members, Urbonas was the only one who voted on June 11 against endorsing the budget-balancing articles on the Special Town Meeting warrant.

Urbonas said that she saw the Tri-Board’s role more in terms of developing revenue-generating recommendations and finding ways to “re-engineer” the way departments operate.

Tri-Board (and selectman) chairman Betsy Sheeran assured Urbonas that that work would come in good time.

“We cannot sit here and plan for revenue raising, when we do not have a balanced budget,” Sheeran said. “We have to balance this budget. We have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of this town.”

Palmerino cautioned against expecting quick results in terms of generating revenue-enhancement possibilities. “This could very well be a process that takes an entire year,” Palmerino said. “I’m not in any hurry to rush to some sort of conclusion during this fiscal year.”

In the wake of the School Department’s initial decision to put forth an outsized FY09 school budget, coupled with Annual Town Meeting’s curious effort to increase budgets without identifying a revenue source, it appears that even town officials who might ordinarily be open to considering an override have closed that door, at least for this year.

Surely this was not at all what the activists had in mind when they demanded that the Tri-Board convene.

[This column originally appeared in the June 26, 2008

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