Sunderland cuts budget after override defeat

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 01, 2017

SUNDERLAND — Following a failed question to increase taxes on this year’s election ballot, town officials are looking to slice $37,000 from municipal spending this year with the potential for much bigger cuts on the horizon.

At this year’s annual Town Meeting, voters approved a $7,578,569 budget pending approval of a tax override question on the May 6 election ballot required to make up a $63,914 deficit because the town didn’t have enough tax revenue. The question was voted down 277-235 — sending town officials back to the drawing board.

“If someone out there is thinking we’ve solved the problem by voting not to raise taxes, and the Select Board and Finance Committee have found a way to balance the budget, we’re not making any fundamental changes; we’re not even beginning to solve the problem,” said Selectman Thomas Fydenkevez about the proposed cutbacks at Monday’s joint Select Board and Finance Committee meeting.

After discussion, the three-member Select Board unanimously recommended an updated $7,541,569 budget — it includes the reductions — which is still a $313,423 increase over the budget approved last year.

In conjunction with the $37,000 in cutbacks, officials proposed making up the remaining $26,914 of the total deficit by using free cash previously allotted for the town’s 300th anniversary celebration next year. Voters will have the final decision on both items, the budget and free cash spending, at a special Town Meeting next month, June 16.

If voters approve the new budget, $12,000 will be cut from schools. Another $10,000 will come from benefits and insurance costs; $6,000 from the town’s building maintenance allotment; $4,000 from general government spending; and $1,000 each from the library, police, inspections, and highway departments. Finally, $1,000 would be shaved from miscellaneous spending.

Had the override vote passed — required by state law Proposition 2½ to raise taxes more than 2.5 percent — the town’s tax base would have expanded by $300,000 per year, in anticipation of rising school expenses and declining rainy day funds. Zooming in, tax rates would have gone up 86 cents from $14.34 to $15.20.

Selectman Scott Bergeron noted that even with the cutbacks, the budget recommendation is a $263,000 increase over the budget approved last year, “which still outpaces our 2.5 growth.”

Looming next year

Looking ahead, town and school officials are preparing for big cuts next year that officials say will come if taxes aren’t increased because the town and schools have spent away financial buffers.

“We’re sneaking by this year, again, and next year is going to be a lot different,” said Select Board Chairman David Pierce, who moved into the chairman position this year. ”It’s become abundantly clear that we need to gird for next year. Our ‘free cash’ will not be as plump as this one.”

To that end, the Select Board also voted May 22 to reshuffle another $13,581 allotted for the town’s 300th anniversary celebration into savings to alleviate financial burden next year.

In light of the failed proposition, the Select Board noted low municipal participation this year. At a recent School Committee meeting, Pierce said he was the only person in the audience.

“Just saying ‘no,’ you’re making a statement. But you have to solve the problem. You should become involved,” Fydenkevez said. “I would strongly suggest the town have an open dialogue to discuss where we are and where we’re going.”

If the updated budget passes, the town will spend $610,614 of its total $757,148 in free cash, leaving a remaining balance of $146,532 to cover costs next budget season.

The special town meeting next month will be held June 16, 7 p.m. at the Sunderland Elementary School on Old Amherst Road.