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Praise For School Department During Most Challenging Budget Process

Posted in: Mashpee News, Top Stories
Dec 12, 2008 - 12:10:52 PM
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MASHPEE- The budget for the town’s next fiscal year may be the most challenging of Town Manager Joyce M. Mason’s career, but it has had at least two bright spots.
The negotiations so far with representatives of the Mashpee School District have been remarkably smooth, with school and town officials improving on their past relationship and working closely through several cooperative meetings to find common ground on the town’s cash-strapped finances.
“The process has definitely changed in a good way. Not that it will be easy; if it comes to having to make cuts, who knows what will happen? But we have been having meetings. Both sides have been respectful. There has been no yelling. There seems to be a clear understanding that this budget is going to be balanced with everyone working together,” Ms. Mason said in an interview on Tuesday. “Not always has it gone this well.”
Another source of optimism in the otherwise dim circumstances, though it is still somewhat tentative, came with House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi’s prediction this week that local aid will be cut by about 10 percent.
Ms. Mason said until the announcement she had been working off the possibility that state aid to the town would be cut by 20 percent or more.
“So I don’t want to say this is a blessing in disguise, but at least it is better than anticipated,” Ms. Mason said.
A 10 percent reduction in local aid would translate to an approximately $610,000 loss in revenue for the town.
The bulk of the local aid comes in state education funding, but Ms. Mason said if the state cuts are even across the board, which would disproportionately affect the schools, the town will look to trim spending elsewhere to ease the impact on the schools. “It will not be just the schools that will carry this burden,” she said.
Despite the good news, though, Ms. Mason said this week that she may not meet the detailed budget time frame laid out in the 2004 Town Charter. She said she is expecting a delay of a couple of weeks “at the most,” and each of the presentations and hearings outlined in the charter will be met, but just not at the prescribed number of days before May Town Meeting that the charter requires. She said uncertainty about the depth of the cuts in state aid is a major factor in the delay.
“If we don’t meet the charter mission, it is not that we don’t want to, it is that the budget is that challenging,” she said.
Ms. Mason said if a resident challenges the failure to meet the time frame, she will address the challenge when it comes.
She said she and the town’s financial team, including members of the Mashpee Finance Committee and the Mashpee Board of Selectmen, are taking a detailed look at the budget to see where reduced spending will have the least amount of impact on municipal services and jobs.
For example, Ms. Mason said they have already agreed to reduce the professional training line item in the budget from nearly $30,000 down to $4,500. Whereas before the town emphasized allowing its employees to attend conferences and seminars to stay up on the latest in their fields, now only those that are necessary for certifications will likely be approved, she said.
She said they are considering reducing the number of town vehicles, so that instead of each inspection division having its own vehicle, multiple departments would share resources and the town could take a couple of vehicles off the road.
She said they have looked at the cellular telephones given to most department heads. “Can we use a better plan to cut the costs? Do they all need cellphones or are there certain department heads that do not need to be in reach 24 hours a day, seven days a week?”
They have looked at the seven fax machines in town hall and some of the land lines as well. “If you remove 15 or 20 phone lines, there is a significant savings,” she said.
“What services are mandatory? What do we need to serve the public? Are there any luxuries that we can’t afford to do anymore?” Ms. Mason said.
“The impressive part is that all of our department heads are looking at how we can change the way we are doing business in order to save jobs,” she said.
Even some of the unions have come forward with concessions, which she said she could not share yet due because they are still preliminary, in order to help retain positions.
“They are all concerned, obviously, because in this economy to be laid off, it would be difficult to find other employment. The last thing we want to do is to cut any positions,” she said.
As John J. Cahalane, chairman of the board of selectmen, described his sense of how the process is being received by town employees, “It is difficult, but they all know the boat we are in.”
The review of not only fringe benefits but also what staff positions are absolutely necessary has already boiled over at least once.
After a discussion with Health Agent Glen E. Harrington, asking him to defend his budget and staff levels, as was asked of other departments, Mr. Harrington misunderstood that his staff was going to see their hours cut back.
Mr. Harrington said in an interview that the misunderstanding has since been resolved.
“I had said they were looking into it, and it kind of set the wheel in motion. So people took it as being more concrete than it was,” he said. “People thought it was set in stone, but it is not. We are months from that decision. Is it a possibility? Of course it is, but we are not there yet.”
Ms. Mason said she is hoping that, because this budget has the potential to have significant consequences on services or positions, the process in the coming weeks will be exceptionally collaborative.
She said if any staffing cuts end up being considered, which she emphasized is still unknown, the department head and other employees will be asked for any suggestions they have for other routes.
Mr. Harrington said, “[Ms. Mason] has promised to keep us all in the loop. So we just have to make sure that the promise is kept, because it is going to affect a lot of people, not just this department.”
Ms. Mason said she hopes to work out a few different budget scenarios, including depleting the town’s free cash, dipping into the stabilization account, and possibly a Proposition 21/2 override, and bring them to the finance committee and selectmen to get some direction on how she should proceed.
“I was hoping that Mashpee could get by without having to consider an override. We are fortunate that we have some free cash to help tide us over. But I hate to say that I am going to use all of our free cash, because it is just not good financial practice to do so. But I just may have to,” Ms. Mason said.
“This budget has been the most challenging. It has been the most difficult. It has been the most emotional for me, because I look at it and I wonder how we are going to balance this budget without telling someone that they are going to lose their job,” she said.