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FinCom unhappy with boards’ reluctance to cut spending

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HARVARD — With the fiscal year 2008 budget expected to require a $1.2-million override, the Finance Committee (FinCom) has requested that all local budgets be re-evaluated for savings and departments prepare for the worst.

However, several committee members expressed frustration on Jan. 30 over the reluctance of other town officials to do that.

The School Committee, for example, is seeking a spending increase of $882,501 for FY08 and has refused to consider anything less. It was asked two weeks ago to prepare a budget that outlined three tiers of $200,000 reductions, both to outline why the spending increase is needed and to be ready if the override fails.

FinCom members left a previous meeting with an understanding that the schools would produce the information, only to discover on Jan. 27 that they wouldn’t.

With town meeting just weeks away, FinCom Chairman Deborah Ricci said time is running out. Her group should be writing its recommendations, she said, but instead is still trying to sift through information to determine what budget it will support.

Though she downplayed the issue after the meeting, Ricci confirmed it’s a problem.

“We’re not getting as much cooperation as we’d like,” she said.

Though an inability to cut further was cited by the School Committee on Jan. 27, longtime FinCom member Steve Colwell said he doesn’t buy it.

“I thought what the School Committee told us on Saturday was outrageous,” he said. “We ought to just craft our own budget on a no-override basis and then craft all the overrides above it.”

Though she claimed “no confidence” in numbers presented by the schools, FinCom member Cynthia Russo said that could be too much work and there’s too little time.

“I think we have to face the fact we have no time left,” she said. “We need to take a simple approach.”

Colwell responded it could be necessary anyway.

“If the whole thing blows up at town meeting, we’ll have to do it anyway in April,” he said.

The group left with no decision on Colwell’s suggestion.

Discussing the issue with the School Committee, Russo said they’ve been rebuffed at all attempts to get a comprehensive view of the school’s financial picture or a definitive idea of how the $882,501 is constructed. She said explaining what the money buys and what a failure of the override would cost is vital to its chance of success.

“When you look at the extent of the override we’re putting forward, it’s critical,” she said.

There was also debate over the type of override that will be presented.

Options include one lump sum, separating town, library and school increases or creating “tiers” of spending that would give voters choice about what to support.

Again there was no clear consensus as each approach carried pros and cons.

The FinCom appeared mostly against the lump-sum approach since the general feeling was a $1.2-million override doesn’t have a good chance of passing.

Russo underscored that point with calculations factoring in capital expenses, fixed costs and town meeting requests.

“The average single-family tax bill would go up by $1,000 if everything passes,” she said.

The average single-family tax bill in Harvard is currently $7,401.94.

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