I write this letter in response to the editorial of May 3 titled, “The Finance Committee Is On The Job.”
First and foremost, all residents of Mashpee should appreciate and value the service and dedication of volunteers who step up and assume critical roles in public service for the betterment of the town. Members of the finance committee are no exception. I was an elected member of a budget committee in my native state. It served the same function as a finance committee, so I understand the role.
The budget review process consists of balancing the mission critical needs of every town department, and fulfilling contractual obligations with the affordable and sustainable increases in expenses that are inevitable. Department heads submit requests to fulfill their operating demands, the majority of which are personnel related and driven by collective bargaining agreements. There is a certain level of service that is expected from town government. Mashpee has been served very well by the finance team and my predecessor. Our AAA bond rating and financial audits are a result of professional policies, conservative practices and competent analysis.
By town charter, it is the budget recommendations of the town manager that is submitted to Town Meeting for consideration. The finance committee has complete autonomy to make their own recommendations.
I attempt to reconcile reasonable and realistic budget proposals by balancing projected growth, operational efficiency, Proposition 2 ½ and treating town employees fairly. The latter has been achieved by maintaining the median wages on Cape Cod with similar labor grades and job classifications. To balance budgets, the town must either increase taxes, reduce spending or enhance revenue. The latter has sometimes fueled debate in and of itself but, in the end, those decisions are made by the legislative body at Town Meeting.
I received communication this year that the finance committee was considering $1.1 million in “financial opportunities.” Town administration did not stifle debate but rather wanted the consequences of potential decisions to be identified publicly.
It had been presumed that the finance committee working group, which met privately, was going to meet with town staff. Such dialogue would have provided clarity to inaccurate presumptions. For example, a surplus in the benefits line item one year doesn’t necessarily mean that such item should be reduced in the subsequent year. A position that had been vacant for a while may subsequently be filled, or an employee who was single at the start of the fiscal year may be eligible for a family plan within the same fiscal year. We are responsible for ensuring those unanticipated changes are budgeted for.
Finance committee members thought they were reducing a new position in the health department when, in fact, they were eliminating an existing position. Due to turn-backs in unfilled positions at the library in the current fiscal year, the finance committee thought the said amount could be reduced in the upcoming fiscal year despite those positions being filled. Loyalty and rewards credits earned through a proactive insurance program reduced our insurance premiums for the current fiscal year, but are not guaranteed for any subsequent year.
Under the “opportunities” figure and after adjustments for unemployment, the town would have been forced to eliminate restored positions, implement layoffs, and possibly eliminate a department. There must be a thorough debate and comprehensive review prior to such decisions being made in a vacuum, especially if they are based upon flawed presumptions. To that end, unnecessary alarm can be avoided with effective and timely communication.
The editorial states: “This year, the meeting will have a chance between two budgets that are nearly the same—but not quite. And the town administration is not happy about it.” I am curious how the writer reached that conclusion because it is factually inaccurate.
In recent years, the recommendations of the town manager and finance committee have been reconciled after constructive dialogue and financial debate. This year, members of the finance committee stated they would prefer to be on the same page as the manager’s recommendations and that can be confirmed by simply reviewing the tapes. I felt compelled to forward my recommended budget with the DPW engineer.
The editorial states that the town manager wants the engineer position “now” while the finance committee thinks the town can wait a bit. What the writer does not articulate is that the funds attributed to this position were approved last year with the full endorsement of the finance committee.
It was the conservative approach of the town administration that prevented such funds from being expended, resulting in turn-backs—otherwise certified as free cash. When the budget for the pending fiscal year was being reviewed, the proposed assistant DPW director and consultant for the sewer commission ended up as a combined position in order to save money.
Finally, to anyone wondering why the finance committee was seeking these reductions, I encourage them to view the taped meetings. It stemmed from the fact that the funding of the Quashnet school project and Cape Cod Tech building was driving up the tax rate.
If we are to collectively reduce the operating budgets year to year based upon authorized debt exclusions, the spirit and intent of debt exclusions are being ignored, and the people deserve a greater understanding of our broad policy mandate pertaining to level services.
Rodney C. Collins
Mr. Collins is town manager of Mashpee.