HARVARD -- The annual budget planning process leading up to Town Meeting was so successful last year that the Finance Committee hopes for a repeat performance this year, Chairwoman Alice von Loesecke announced at an all-boards meeting last Wednesday night.
Representatives of several town boards and departments attended the meeting, hosted by the Finance Committee and held in the Town Hall meeting room. Seated at adjacent tables in front were Finance and School Committee members, selectmen and the superintendent.
After von Loesecke's introduction and "round table" remarks, the floor was opened to questions, but there were none from the audience and talk at the table was relatively brief.
First on the agenda were two presentations by Town Administrator Tim Bragan on "The State of the State" and Finance Director Lorraine Leonard on "The State of the Town."
Bragan's brief PowerPoint presentation outlined money-saving moves the town has made, such as reducing the workforce, outsourcing some services and trimming health-insurance costs, working with unions and employees and in concert with Minuteman Nashoba Health group, the health insurance purchasing consortium the town belongs to.
Future cost-cutting initiatives include regionalizing services with other communities, a case in point being the regional communications center in Devens. Also on the to-do list was "working to reduce our long-term post employment benefit costs," Bragan said.
He didn't add that work in progress also includes figuring out how to pay those bills when they come due. When the so-called "unfunded liability" problem was spotlighted by a former selectman earlier this year, it sparked efforts to establish a transparent process by which the town starts saving now to pay later for retired employees' health insurance benefits.
Another challenge is addressing "infrastructure issues" to increase safety and reduce operating costs, Bragan said. Or as Selectman Tim Clark put it, creating a long-term plan to upgrade the town's deteriorating network of "ancient roads," even if state aid -- annual Chapter 90 highway funding -- isn't sufficient for the purpose. The cost could be huge, he predicted.
Reminded that $250,000 a year has been set aside for road repairs (part of a long-range plan mapped out by DPW Director Rich Nota and approved by selectmen), Clark said that amount was for phased-in repair of a single road. That road was in deplorable condition, arguably one of the worst in town, but Clark said the operating budget should include a recurring line item for road repairs town wide.
Last on Bragan's list, working with the Energy Advisory Committee to cut energy costs.
Leonard's presentation was a succinct run-through of the "Draft FY2014 Recap." It listed on a single page the town's financial standing in terms of revenue versus expenses over a four-year period from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2014.
Leonard pointed out that "cherry sheet receipts," (state aid) was a "level funded" number and that at least one other funding source may "go away" next year. She also explained that the "capital warrant articles" figure was only a placeholder for now.
Leonard also noted that there could be an unexpected spike in the school budget for special-education needs, and if so, reserve funds could be re-directed to cover it.
Based on proposed numbers for fiscal 2014, the picture looks promising, with $281,236 on the plus side. "It's not firm, but ..." it is good news, Leonard said of the tentative surplus.
Compared to finance summits that will follow as the budget-building season progresses, the all-boards session was swift, wrapping in less than an hour.
There wasn't that much new ground to cover. The chairman's preamble sounded a bit like an updated version of the 2012 Finance Committee report.
"It was a great process last year," she said. "We're asking for level services (versus level cost) budgets again this year."
Despite a structural deficit that's growing by $200,000 a year, projections so far for the next fiscal year show a $280,000 surplus, she said.
The Finance Committee is calling for caution and flexibility as departments build their budgets this year.
Setting higher expectations this year, the Finance Committee is asking for a narrative with each budget submission, including "three priority areas you'd be willing to cut" if need be and an explanation of what the impact of those cuts would be, von Loesecke said.
"As a group, we decided to be surgical" versus calling for "across the board" cuts of, say, five percent, she said, which makes the narrative "all the more important."
The Finance Committee aims to hold the line on due dates this year, von Loesecke said. Budget submissions are due Nov. 8.
With Town Meeting moved up, the budget cycle is shorter, so that's the "drop dead" due date, she said. And the deadline for submitting warrant articles, Jan. 21, is also the Finance Committee's "hard and fast" due date for reviewing them. Otherwise, "we can't guarantee" a recommendation, she said. "All articles deserve thoughtful review."