keegan-budget-summit-2

Town Manager Bill Keegan talks at a previous budget presentation.

Key elected and appointed officials are expected to gather at Town Hall next Monday night for a hastily scheduled fiscal summit aimed at establishing a unified narrative supporting the $85.46 million budget developed by the central administration and endorsed this week by selectmen.

Joining the Monday night forum will be selectmen, members of the school and advisory committees and key municipal and school officials, according to Town Manager William Keegan, who suggested the meeting will add “perspective” to the fiscal 2021 budget.

“We’re not running off the rails here,” he said Tuesday night. “Misinformation can be very damaging to what is really a good story about this community.”

Plans for the summit crystallized at a Saturday morning meeting attended by selectmen, school and advisory board chairs Mark Elfman, Tina Belanger and Seth Ferguson, as well as Keegan and other public officials.

According to Elfman, the unusual weekend confab had been convened in response to a non-binding vote four days earlier by advisory committee members to roll back the $85.46 million budget proposed by Keegan by roughly a half-million dollars.

The committee’s 6-4-1 vote (with Ferguson abstaining) on Jan. 29 signaled that members intend to continue preaching a more restrictive fiscal policy in the current budget cycle.

Although the advisory committee lacks statutory power over the budget, the board’s recommendations tend to carry weight with voters. Their influence was a key factor in convincing voters at last year’s May town meeting to shave $212,000 from the fiscal 2020 budget plan.

Some of that funding was subsequently restored by voters at the November town meeting, but the experience clearly rankled affected parties now hoping to avert a repeat performance by seeking consensus at next Monday’s impromptu budget session.

Partly at issue has been a seeming disconnect between the 3.5 percent growth target suggested by Keegan (and endorsed by selectmen) last November and the 5.8 percent budget rolled out two weeks ago.

In his Jan. 21 presentation, Keegan said the 3.5 percent figure reflected only municipal and school operational spending, while fixed costs — driven by principal and interest payments on borrowed funds, employee pensions and water and sewer department spending — would grow by 8.42 percent.

That distinction was lost on Selectwoman Leah Gibson, who this week said she had viewed the 3.5% target as an “all-in” budget figure, and suggested trimming other proposed expenses to help offset higher than normal debt payments.

“Is this the right year to be looking at six or seven new positions?” Gibson asked rhetorically.

Selectman David Feldman, while backing the $85.46 million budget proposal, suggested that temporarily rolling back capital spending might be a better means of lessening the burden.

“To be honest with you, I’m fine with the budget,” Feldman said, so long as free cash funds are not used to subsidize operating spending.

Ultimately, Gibson was the lone dissenter as Elfman, Feldman and fellow board member Edward O’Leary voted to endorse Keegan’s budget plan.

Stressing that Foxboro is still in the early stages of the fiscal 2021 cycle, with months remaining before the annual town meeting on May 1, both Keegan and Finance Director George Samia characterized the current budget plan as a “working document.”

Keegan also said next Monday’s meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Town Hall, will review budgetary progress against the administration’s strategic plan.

“Strangely enough, we’re right on it,” he said. “The fixed costs are up this year because we planned for it.”

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