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Budget session held for cuts that are no longer coming

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TOWNSEND — The upcoming school budget override vote has stirred the passions of many Townsend residents, including one of the selectman.

In preparation for Townsend’s override vote on Monday, June 25, the Board of Selectmen held its normally-scheduled June 19 meeting in the Great Hall instead. The meeting was planned as an information session for voters about the override and its consequences.

The plan for the meeting was to have every department present facts about what affect the approval or disapproval of the override would have on the town. However, events in Ashby changed all that.

The meeting had been planned before Ashby voted against the override on June 12.

As a regional school system, the North Middlesex school budget must be approved by a majority of the three member towns.

Pepperell had already accepted the certified school budget.

Ashby and Townsend only budgeted a 2.5 percent increase from the previous year’s budget, with overrides placed before voters to make up the difference.

If Ashby had approved its override, Townsend would have been required to support the school’s certified budget, either through a property tax override or through deep cuts in municipal spending, to the tune of $714,220. Now Townsend’s vote will decide the fate of the existing school budget and could have an impact on the Ashby town budget.

Even though Monday’s election won’t require municipal budget cuts, whether the override is passed or not, several departmental presentations aired the possibility of future cuts without an override. Town departments had been asked to prepare scenarios on the impact of a 15 percent cut, had the Townsend override failed and Ashby’s succeeded.

“Today, as we sit, Ashby has rejected the override,” said Chenelle. “If we reject the override, then the School Committee would have to go back and recertify its budget.”

The School Committee would submit its new budget, he said, and it would need to be voted on at a special town meeting within 45 days of the submission.

“Today, if we reject the override, there are no cuts to be made on the municipal side of the budget,” Chenelle reminded the audience.

Highway Superintendent Ed Kukkula, Zoning Board of Appeals administrative assistant Karen Chapman and Building Commissioner Richard Hanks all warned of dire consequences if their budgets had to be cut, as did police Chief Erving Marshall and interim fire Chief Donald Klein.

However, Town Clerk Daniel Murphy suggested there isn’t enough factual information for an informative meeting.

“It’s not reality at this point in time,” Murphy said about the discussed cuts to municipal budgets.

Chenelle said the meeting was originally planned when there was the possibility that Ashby’s vote would force Townsend to fund the school’s certified budget.

“Townsend is in the driver’s seat,” said Chenelle.

School Committee member Frederick Wheeler III said he had a list of facts to share with the public.

“We’ve cut $1 million off the original level-service budget,” said Wheeler.

The budget originally certified by the school only added one teaching position for full-day kindergarten and one high school position to teach Chinese and Asian studies. The full-day kindergarten would be refunded through a grant that would cover the first two years, but Wheeler didn’t know how the grant money would be disbursed.

With the exception of the two additions, the majority of the significant budget increase, despite services remaining level, was attributed to rising fixed costs such as utilities, health insurance and pay increases that were agreed upon last year.

Wheeler then listed where the $1 million taken from the level-service budget came from. Student fees of $75 per activity for high school students and $50 per middle school activity were added, he said, and, looking closely at enrollment, there was a $50,000 savings in school choice.

Most significantly, each middle school took a $400,000 cut, which reverts the team concept back to a junior high system. The junior high program will greatly reduce common planning time and 12 teaching positions, Wheeler noted.

Wheeler said the School Committee had made a motion before Town Meeting to recertify the budget at $500,000 lower across the district by reducing the elementary school budgets by $100,000 each, which would cause increased class sizes.

The motion to reduce the elementary school budgets failed, Wheeler said, because a two-thirds majority vote was needed but the issue receiving four votes in favor, four votes against and one abstention.

“We didn’t overinflate the budget,” said Wheeler.

He said he had walked through the school budget with the Board of Selectmen on a line-by-line basis, without any suggestions of unnecessary costs to cut.

Chenelle supported Wheeler’s statement that the budget isn’t overinflated, but said that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything that can’t be streamlined.

Assessor Niles Busler spoke out against the override. He said seniors on fixed incomes won’t be able to afford the increased tax rate caused by the override.

Chenelle eventually cut Busler off, reminding everyone that the purpose of the meeting was to share facts.

Townsend resident Lynn LeBlanc asked if the selectmen could clarify what the actual tax increase would be if the override were passed.

The actual tax increase caused by the override varies depending on property values, said Chenelle. According to numbers calculated by the town assessors, the average value of a single-family home is about $270,000.

As shown on a spreadsheet created by town accountant Kim Fales, the average home will see a tax increase of $97 for next year using the budget approved at Town Meeting. If the override is approved, she said, the average home will pay an additional $210.

Also, the tax increase would be included in every budget afterward as a starting point for increases.

Having made few comments through the first 50 minutes of the discussion, Plamondon finally shared his opinions on the override.

“I know the chairman said we weren’t suppose to take a position on this,” said Selectman Robert Plamondon. “I will take a position on this.”

Before speaking against the override, Plamondon encouraged everyone to vote on Monday, June 25, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., whatever their opinions on the override are.

Plamondon said he can’t support the override because he feels it will hurt senior citizens on fixed incomes.

“I think there’s a disproportionate financial negative impact that happens to the elderly in this town who are on fixed incomes, and somebody needs to advocate for them,” said Plamondon. Many seniors are already having difficulty paying rising bills with an income that stays stagnant, he said.

Plamondon also suggested that the override could hurt the town’s bond rating in terms of capital planning, but didn’t expand on why that would be the case.

Plamondon said some people have the perception “that if you don’t support the budget, you are somehow against the education, and I think that’s grossly unfair.”

Wheeler called out for a point of order.

He said it’s unfair for the meeting to be introduced as an information session, and then have a selectman directly state his stance on the override.

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” said Plamondon.

Before leaving Great Hall, Wheeler said he’d been deceived about the way the meeting was represented.

Conversation about the override continued for another 10 minutes.

Closing the information session, Chenelle restated that whatever happens to the override question on Monday won’t directly lead to municipal cuts and urged every registered voter to participate in the override vote.

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