Possible Override Looms On Town's Fiscal Horizon

Sandwich schools want more money for the coming fiscal year – and they may need taxpayers to fund a permanent override to get it.

Town manager George H. Dunham last night presented his recommended 2015 town operating budget to the board of selectmen.

Budget numbers continue to move around, and likely will continue to do so until the Annual Town Meeting in May.

But this draft of the budget for the first time included a crucial number: the local school budget, approved Wednesday by the Sandwich School Committee, which totals $24.8 million.

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The town’s overall projected budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 comes to just under $71 million.

The projected budget also carries a deficit: $663,985.

Most of that money can be tracked to the school committee’s plans to start operating an academy in September for all 7th and 8th grade students in the Sandwich schools.

Known as the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM) Academy, the new school will be housed in the “A” Wing of Sandwich High School.

Sandwich school officials see STEM as a way to improve educational offerings in the district and help retain students who have shown a disheartening tendency in recent years to attend schools outside town.

C. Richard Canfield, superintendent of Sandwich public schools, has said that starting STEM will increase educational costs in town, at least at the start.

At last night’s meeting with the selectmen, Dr. Canfield estimated STEM’s start-up cost for the coming fiscal year at about $500,000.

STEM, in fact, ties in directly with an increase in the schools budget – and with the operating deficit in the overall town budget.

In December, the selectmen, working from budget estimates prepared by Mr. Dunham, said they planned to limit increases in the town’s operating budget to between 2 and 3 percent. They asked the school committee to do the same on the school side.

The town side of the budget carries a 2.5-percent increase.

The school committee, however, voted for a 4.3 percent increase.

In the next few months, Sandwich must figure out what to do.

By state law, the town budget must be balanced. Town officials either need to decide how to slice a lot of money, maybe more than $600,000, from the budget, or else get voter approval to permanently increase the town’s property tax levy limit.

The rules are spelled out in a state law known as Proposition 2 1/2, designed to restrict annual increases in the property tax levy limit.

Generally speaking, increasing the annual tax levy limit beyond that percentage requires voter approval of an operating override. (Voters also can agree to pay for capital improvements, but those projects are paid off over time and do not become part of the levy.)

Last night, Mr. Dunham said that only the board of selectmen can propose an operating override to the voters. Overrides cannot be put forward either by the school committee or by petition.

In his budget presentation, the town manager listed a series of proposals that he said were designed to improve operations while staying inside budget constraints.

Mr. Dunham said the town would be able to save $73,000 by combining the collector position with the treasurer position, and $250,000 in costs by reducing the town’s appropriation to the sanitation enterprise fund.

The town manager also has proposed hiring an assistant town planner, two public works workers and a geographic information systems analyst.

Mr. Dunham also listed several personnel initiatives that he does not plan to pursue in the coming fiscal year, including adding a third ambulance crew, an additional police officer per shift, and eight civilian dispatchers.

Those initiatives, totaling more than $2.1 million, would require an operating override.

But in the coming fiscal year, Mr. Dunham said, he hopes to fund more than $500,000 in continuing capital costs through the town’s operating budget. 

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