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Winchester Prepares for Key Override Discussions

Feb 06, 2019 06:48AM ● By Lisa Redmond

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WINCHESTER – At the upcoming Feb. 11 Special Town Meeting, members will receive a tutorial of sorts about the FY20 budget and options for a Proposition 2 ½ override, but by state law the Select Board will make the final decision about placing an override question on the town election ballot.

Although the Special Town Meeting is important to provide voters with information, Selectman Chairman Lance R. Grenzeback said, “We are not forcing Town Meeting to take sides (on an override) on Feb. 11…The selectmen draw the short straw on that,’’ Grenzeback said at the Jan. 28 selectmen’s meeting.

 But it is” good practice’’ to go before Town Meeting to explain options and get feedback, he said.

The spring Town Election is scheduled for March 26. The spring 2019 Town Meeting is set for April 29 to approve budgets before the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.

A public information session prior to the Special Town Meeting will be held at 11 a.m. on Feb. 7 at the Jenks Senior Center, 109 Skillings Road.

The tentative FY20 town budget is about $25 million, while the school budget is estimated at $53 million.

The town is facing this financial dilemma because “our expenditures have outgrown our revenues, driven by a growing population,’’ Grenzeback explained.

Twenty years ago, Winchester had 21,000 residents, now the population is up to 23,000, bringing with it 1,500 more school children, a number that is expected to grow by 600-700 students over the next five to 10 years.

As town and school officials struggle to prepare their FY20 budgets, the “austerity’’ budget is a 4.35 percent increase over the current FY19 budget. The anticipated $5 million shortfall can be absorbed using $2.5 million in free cash, along with departmental/personnel cuts.

Town Manager Lisa Wong said this option would allow the town/schools to keep “treading water.’’

Wong explained that much of the school budget, for example, is consumed by state mandated services, such as special education costs. A common complaint from school district across the state is underfunded special education mandates.  In addition, the town stares down the barrel of rising health care costs.

But Selectman Mariano Goluboff described the austerity budget as not really treading water. “With enrollment growth we are not providing future students with the same level of services,’’ he said.

Wong said the school budget is “fairly complex’’ and that a shift in funds one way creates a domino effect that can cause the school system to fall behind.

The “needs’’ budget includes what the town and schools need, requiring an 8.9 percent increase and a $10.6 million shortfall. But Wong explained that $7 million to $8 million of the $10.6 million would be needed specifically for the FY20 budget.

Selectman David Errico asked if there is a budget between austerity and needs that doesn’t involve cuts in personnel, but without new hires. Is there a “sweet spot’’ budget? he asked.

Any option depends on the voters’ “tolerance for a continuation of cuts and people’s desire for the kind of improvements or catch up we need,’’ Wong said.

Seeking an override is nothing new for Winchester. Every decade or so, town officials ask voters to pay for an override, mostly to fund capital projects

An override allows town officials to raise the tax levy limit or the amount of revenue that can be raised via taxes by more than 2 ½ percent allowed under Proposition 2 ½. And while voters can pass a $10 million override, the increase in the levy limit can be staggered over time so that taxpayers aren’t hit with a huge tax increase in one year.

A sticking point for a $10 million override is letting voters know “the money won’t be spent all in the first year,’’ Grenzeback said.

Selectman Michael Bettencourt said there needs to be a plan to show how and when the money will be spent, and how the spending will be controlled.

“A lot of people feel uneasy about that. I know I do,’’ he said.

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