Coping with face coverings and roped-off rows in the high school auditorium, more than 200 voters attending Monday’s annual town meeting overwhelmingly approved an $84 million operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
They also got a crash course in the mechanics of local government.
Voters faced a pared-down agenda featuring just 11 warrant articles, most of the housekeeping variety — partly reflecting the unknowns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of those items passed muster with little fanfare in a show of support that signaled confidence in town leadership, as well as a leap of faith in uncertain times.
Predictably, most of the debate focused on the fiscal 2021 budget. That spending plan was scaled back by $1.75 million from an original version advanced by Town Manager William Keegan, but is still 3 percent higher than the current fiscal year.
It was based on the assumption that combined revenues will shrink by nearly $2.5 million from initial estimates, with the town tapping into its financial reserves to make up any difference.
Much of the projected declines stem from state restrictions on bars and restaurants which, in turn, have reduced hotel and meals tax payments. Similar factors include the cancellation of several concerts and large-scale events planned for Gillette Stadium.
Yet even when reminded of these and other financial uncertainties, voters soundly rejected calls by former advisory board member Susan Dring to reduce spending by another 10 percent.
“There is no way receipts are going to come in at $10 million,” Dring argued, referring to what she described as overly optimistic revenue forecasts. “This is at least a million dollars over budget.”
This elicited a passionate reply from school board Chairwoman Tina Belanger, who defended school spending increases as driven largely by special education mandates.
“To reduce our budget by $375,000 is going to put us in a very difficult position,” Belanger said.
It also prompted a response from selectmen Chairman Mark Elfman, who claimed that town officials had done “an incredible job” in preparing next year’s spending plan, while conceding further budget adjustments may be needed next fall.
“This town is truly in an incredible position,” Elfman said.
Some voters were more skeptical.
Noting costs associated with reopening schools in a post-pandemic environment, Andrew Ballantyne of Sherman Street questioned if the proposed budget was sufficient to enable local students to return safely to classrooms next fall.
While explaining that next year’s budget was developed in December before the coronavirus outbreak, Business Manager William Yukna still expressed confidence in the school department’s financial plan.
“We feel at this point that we are buying the equipment we will need to open the schools — whatever that looks like,” Yukna said.
But any budgetary drama during the 2-1/2 hour session was largely overshadowed by exhaustive efforts to address errors in preparing and posting the town warrant — a legal document which spells out the order of business at town meeting.
According to Moderator Frank Spillane, the original warrant text posted in April had failed to include a customary line-by-line printout of proposed spending for either the operational or capital budgets.
The omission went unnoticed until two weeks ago when Spillane said he first reviewed the document in preparation for Monday night’s annual meeting. Consequently, a revised warrant including the financial information was prepared and posted on Friday, June 5.
But because town meeting technically begins with the annual town election — held this year on Monday, June 8 — the supplemental warrant posting did not provide the necessary 7-day advance notice required by law.
As a result, Spillane said, he opted to make the best of a bad situation by proceeding with the original warrant while providing voters with a detailed budgetary handout upon arriving at the high school auditorium Monday night.
“The bottom line is there are two warrants,” he explained. “There are issues with both, and we’re moving forward with the first one. I thought it was in the best interests of the town, under the circumstances, to allow it.”
He also abandoned plans to streamline the annual meeting by waiving a full reading of the proposed budget, instead insisting that advisory board member Bernard Dumont read the lengthy document in its entirety.
While contending the warrant snafu posed legal issues relative to posting requirements, as well as breaching long-standing practices, Spillane hinted at more serious ramifications.
Although town bylaws forbid voters from increasing proposed appropriations beyond sums detailed in the town meeting warrant, the absence of those sums would allow any line item to be amended without limit.
“If the budget is not included in the warrant the sky’s the limit,” Spillane said. “There would be no ceiling.”
Ironically, a comparable scenario arose Monday night when Jennifer Luck of Lawton Lane sought to reinstate a second-grade teaching position that had been eliminated at the Igo Elementary School. Saying she spoke for a group of concerned parents, Luck asked voters to boost the school budget accordingly.
When Spillane advised that such a motion violated town bylaws and would be ruled out of order, Luck agreed to withdraw the request.
All told, 213 registered voters turned out for the town’s annual legislative session, more than double the number needed for a quorum. Face coverings were the attire of the day and those in attendance were spaced throughout the high school auditorium in an effort to comply with social distancing guidelines.
In addition to the operating budget, voters approved an $11 million capital budget of which $9.4 million was dedicated to water system improvements that included constructing a new storage tank and overhauling a second, as well as replacing an aging main on West Street.
Voters also authorized a land swap between the town and local housing authority to facilitate construction of public housing units at 17 Centennial St., and a small public parking lot at 15-17 Market St.