LINCOLN – Just over a week after submitting his Fiscal Year 2011-12 recommended municipal and school operating budget of approximately $70.4 million to the Budget Board – his deadline, per order of the Town Charter, was Feb. 15 – Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond called the number “very fair” to both sides.
“I think it will provide excellent municipal and educational services, and – at the same time – respects the fact that we can't keep asking for more money from the taxpayers,” he said. “I think we've done a good job of balancing revenue losses with reduced expenses, and put in place a very strict budget.
“Actually, we've had a balanced budget – with small surpluses – for three years now,” he stated. “I think it's a plus we have a Budget Board because it's an independent oversight process. In these difficult times, it provides us with a non-political entity to review it objectively.
“This budget was constructed already anticipating there would be no tax rate increase in residential, commercial, motor vehicle or tangible property.”
In his letter to the board, Almond proposed a municipal budget of approximately $17.3 million and an educational budget of $48 million, that latter amount about $400,000 less than the one recommended to him by the School Committee on Feb. 1.
It also would include school capital resolutions of almost $499,000; a library expansion resolution of $400,000; municipal debt service of $865,000; and education debt service of just under $3.3 million.
The $70.4 million total, he indicated, represents a 1.95 percent increase over the FY 2010-11 budget of $69.0 million, which was adjusted down by the Town Council after last May's Financial Town Meeting.
“If you take the original number of $69.9 million passed at the FTM, there's almost no increase in local spending,” Almond noted. “I think this represents several years of planning, basically, to stay within the the revenues available. That's one thing in which we've done a good job – staying ahead of the forecasted reductions in revenue.
“We've lost $4.7 million in state and local revenue over the past three years, and we've made it up mostly on spending cuts,” he added. “We haven't really increased our total spending; we've slightly decreased municipal spending the last three years.
“It can be confusing, because – in some areas – it appears spending has increased, but the operating budgets have decreased … Let's put it this way: In 2008-09, our total budget was $71,819,655. This year, it was $69,083,619, so this current budget is that much lower. The good news is there have been no major cuts, and we've still been able to hold the line on expenses for this coming fiscal year.”
As for the education budget of $48 million, the School Committee requested a $1.9 million increase from FY 2010-11, and Almond recommended $1.5 million (a 3.9 percent hike over FY 2010-11).
“You have to understand the expected increase is in Lincoln state aid; under the new formula, that's over $500,000,” he explained. “The School Department currently gets about $6.1 million, and it's supposed to increase by over a half-million … so my recommendation includes that amount in state aid and $100,000 in Medicaid. and it also requires that the (school) department utilize $869,000 from its surplus” of about $2.4 million.
When Almond factored in that $869,000 and the $500,000 rise in state aid, he said he would look to the town to find the difference of about $250,000. That most probably would come from money identified within the current tax levy.
“I'm also going to the School Department with a recommendation to provide $498,740 to fund renovations throughout all of the schools, and that money would come from Twin River restricted gaming revenues,” he stated. “We've been allotting money for that purpose for at least four years. It's extremely important to our taxpayers that we maintain our town buildings, including schools.
“We've also proposed to earmark $400,000 for library building expansion (by about 2,000 square feet), so that's almost $900,000 that doesn't come from taxes, which obviously is very important.
“When it comes to the schools, I think the increase I've offered is very fair,” he continued. “It would use only one-third of their surplus, and allows them the proper time frame to make budget adjustments in response to a steady decline in student enrollment.”
Almond pointed out that, in 2001, the town had 3,706 students, which later dropped to 3,300 in 2010. This coming fiscal year, that number is expected to decrease by an additional 40-50 students.
“The best way to illustrate this: In 2009, our per-pupil cost was approximately $14,000, and it was roughly the same in 2010,” he said. “Next year, with the budget I recommended, that per-pupil cost is about $14,700. Therefore, the money we have available to spend on each student is actually increasing, despite declining enrollment.
“I don't want to sound adversarial; to the School Committee's credit, given adequate funding, it has demonstrated two things,” he added. “First, it's managed money the town had given it very well, as reflected by the surpluses it's had the last three years; and, second, given the proper time, it's been able to reduce its overall expenses so that they're more in line with declining enrollment.
“I think this will prevent a knee-jerk reaction when the budget is increased disproportionately to the number of students.”
The recommended municipal budget contains a capital budget of almost $1.25 million, or about $64,600 more than the previous year; and a decrease in capital spending of $86,000 (for an overall adjusted decrease of $21,403).
“Capital spending reflects a significant capital increase initiated in FY 2010-11 as a result of reduced bond debt,” he wrote in his letter to the Budget Board. “In turn, $850,000 was invested in roadway improvement.
“For FY 2011-12, I have again designated $850,000 for roadway repair. This will not only ensure much needed investment, but (also) the levy will maintain the capacity to bond future long-term capital investments without seeking additional revenues.”
Almond admitted he doesn't treat his budget preparation as simply as an “annual event,” and believes that's the reason for Lincoln's economic success.
“We've forecasted revenues and expenditures at a minimum of three years out,” he said. “I started working on the elements of this budget three years ago. The idea is you just can't react to each year; the adjustments in revenue have been dramatic, and some fixed costs equally dramatic when you're talking about pensions, health care and utilities.”
While discussing the debt services (loans the town has sought), he indicated the municipal amount of $865,000 helps pay for the new senior center; a $5 million bond; and municipal improvement bond (from 2004), as well as an open space bond (primarily for the Camp Meehan purchase).
With the education debt service, the near $3.3 million is paying for the middle school and prior school renovations.
“We haven't taken on any additional debt services since 2006,” he said. “Essentially, this budget is out of my hands now. It's up to the Budget Board to deliberate my proposal, and they'll begin to hold hearings involving myself, the School Department, the Town Council and the public.
“Over the coming months, they'll go through it piece by piece, and then recommend a final budget to the voters at the FTM.”
That FTM, by the way, is scheduled for Monday, May 9 at 7 p.m. at the Lincoln High auditorium.