HARVARD — According to town administrator Paul Cohen, Harvard will almost certainly need an override this spring, and at this point it appears larger than any in recent years.
Such was the upshot from the budget forum between the selectmen and Finance Committee last Saturday morning, the first of several that will be held in January.
Over the course of about an hour, officials heard Cohen report the bleak financial prospects for the upcoming fiscal year.
“It’s very clear at this point it doesn’t appear we’ll be able to provide level services with overrides on the order of magnitude we’ve had in recent years,” he said.
“You could be looking at an override with a reduction of services,” he said at another point in the meeting.
Cohen produced projections of fixed revenue and expenses for FY07 that showed Harvard could afford townwide payroll increases of $323,403 without an override.
Cohen said the picture was significantly bleaker on the school side. Preliminary meetings with district officials have showed an 11.1 percent increase of the district’s $9,331,405 FY06 budget.
“That’s a seven-figure increase, and that’s without the new (teacher) contracts,” said Cohen. “This is uncharted territory.”
After the meeting, Cohen said that last year’s $500,000 override added $267 to the average single-family tax bill. While he said exact figures on the current increases will be forthcoming shortly, that baseline gives an idea of the magnitude of increase being discussed.
With the exact school budget still an unknown, Selectmen Chairman William Marinelli and FinCom Chairman Cindy Russo both adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the budget after the meeting.
Cohen said the School Committee will meet with the FinCom this Saturday to present its preliminary budget, but the indication is clear.
“We’ve got our hands full this year … and we have seven weeks until the selectmen need to sign the town meeting warrant,” he said.
At this point, Cohen said there’s little optimism the contracts will be in place before town meeting, which adds another layer of complexity to budget-making.
Cohen said officials have two less-than-ideal choices on how to prepare for town meeting: The first is to prepare a budget using the current contract numbers, which would require another town meeting when a new contract is reached for further appropriations (the alternative being that payroll would eat up a larger percentage of department budgets once the COLA is figured in.)
The other option would be to estimate the likely increases and bring them to town meeting within an override, but Cohen said that, considering the increases already on the table, it may be difficult to find support for that measure.
Selectman Lucy Wallace agreed.
“I’m not sure people would support an override without those contracts,” she said.
Selectman Randall Dean concurred, but Cohen iterated that something will have to be done in the next few weeks.
“The state requires the town to have a budget by July 1,” he said. “Something has to be done, but it (not having the contracts) makes it all the more difficult.”
Cohen reminded everyone that there will also be requests for a sewerage district in the town center, further repairs to the Bromfield School roof and the Massachusetts Avenue senior housing project on the warrant as well.
“It could be a very difficult and troublesome town meeting,” said Cohen.
Projected increase not enough
The revenue projections presented by Cohen showed that Harvard can expect to have $18,563,141 in revenue at its disposal in FY07, up from $17,883,546 in FY06, an increase of 3.42 percent or $442,235.
However, that increase was set against several increased expenses, chief of which was an 11.37 percent jump in insurance and benefit assessments, which added $240,338 to the bottom line.
In explaining the selectmen’s budget, Cohen showed that regular “step” payroll increases accounted for $40,000 of increased expenses, while fuel expenses, up 30 percent ($15,000), were a big part of the $36,303 being added to the DPW’s projected expenses. There was also $12,000 added for heating oil and electricity for public buildings, plus $15,000 to transfer and dispose of solid waste from the transfer station, and numerous smaller increases that yielded a bottom line that was $52,691 over the no-override threshold.
Those calculations did not include likely requests, such as the $30,000 in additional library payroll that’s projected as necessary to open the new facility at Old Bromfield next January or capital items such as further repairs to the Bromfield School roof.
Also not making the cut were requests from the police department to add another sergeant, an additional three hours per week for the fire chief’s administrative assistance, reinstatement of two part-time transfer station employees, two additional DPW truck drivers/laborers, a 32-hour, per week DPW administrative assistant and $30,000 to crack-seal town roadways