Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finance Committee Public Forum

On April 7 I attended a Finance Committee Public Forum about the FY10 budget in order to get a better understanding of the financial difficulties that our town is facing. I was pretty disappointed with the poor attendance for this forum. In addition to the Finance Committee members and Rob Aseltine representing the School Committee, there was a total of two town residents including myself in attendance.

While there was not a formal presentation or overview of the FY10 budget, a number of specific subjects were discussed that provided me with a clearer picture of the financial issues facing the town of Longmeadow.

Below are some highlights from this meeting…

  • One of the largest and fastest growing segments of the town budget is the money allocated to Special Education (SPED). According to Rob Aseltine, approximately $10 million out of a total FY2010 budget of ~ $52 million is spent on SPED services and these costs are escalating at a rate of ~ 8-10% year. This increase in SPED costs every year pretty much consumes the allowable 2½% increase in revenues from property taxes. For FY2010, increased property taxes (limited by Proposition 2½) amounted to ~ $1 million over FY2009 vs. $800,000 increase in SPED costs.
  • Mr. Aseltine summarized the status of the federal stimulus money that was recently announced by Governor Patrick (see Springfield Republican article). The town of Longmeadow will be receiving approximately $418,000 for use with SPED. According to Mr. Aseltine, 50% of this money must be used for SPED program enhancements while the other 50% could be used for direct SPED costs. According to the news article, 50% of this money was to be disbursed to the towns by the end of April and other 50% in the Fall 2009.
  • At this point in the meeting there was considerable debate led by Chair- Mark Barowsky suggesting that at least a portion of this federal grant be allocated to town services since a signficant portion of the SPED program is funded by money from the General Fund. Mr. Aseltine argued that a major portion of this money be “invested” to improve the efficiency of delivering SPED services through the implementation of a new program called “Response to Invention”. RTI is a method of academic intervention used in the United States designed to provide early, effective assistance to children who are having difficulty learning. The ultimate goal would be to at least significantly reduce the rate of change for delivering SPED services.
  • It is interesting to note that Robin Crosbie, Town Manager made a similar recommendation about the cost of SPED services in a LongmeadowBuzz commentary last year and was soundly rebuked by members of the Longmeadow School Committee.

    Here is an excerpt from her posting....
    "Now that I am on the topic of special education, let me say that residents, including parents of special needs students, have expressed concerns to me about the effectiveness and costs of the special education program. No one doubts or disputes the intentions and commitment of the school department to serving these students and families. But it may be time for the town to fund an outside managment study of the organization and effectiveness of pupil services. System assessments, whether of human or capital infrastructure, can be very helpful in seeing the big picture, developing specific remedies and recommending long-term planning and funding.” Robin Crosbie, Town Manager
  • Combine the increase in SPED costs + the significant reduction in state aid for Longmeadow for both the current FY2009 as well as FY2010, there is no room for salary increases for the town’s 650 employees without a significant reduction in town services. With most of the town employee labor contracts still being negotiated, there is considerable uncertainty about the level of town services for FY2010.

    There are no cost of living adjustments (school or town) included with the FY2010 budget to be voted on at next week’s Annual Town Meeting. With town employee and school department teachers contracts expiring in June and August, there is a potential increase in overall costs of $300,000 with every % increase in COLA.

    The Longmeadow School Committee is meeting next Monday night (April 27) in executive session to discuss “strategy with respect to collective bargaining”. Is it possible that all or a portion of the $417,000 in federal stimulus money will be used by the School Committee will be used to provide a COLA adjustments to the teacher’s contract?

I am hoping that the teachers and town employee unions will agree to a 0% COLA for at least one year. We need our town employees and teachers to help maintain the quality of life and education in our town. We also need to recognize the difficult financial circumstances that lie ahead and plan accordingly.

Everyone should plan to attend the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday, April 28 at 7 PM in the Longmeadow HS gymnasium.

Longmeadow Audit Committee Vacancies

Readers may well recall a number of embarrassing and costly misdeeds committed by municipal and agency officials in our region in recent years.

How could such abuses occur? Investigations showed that insufficient policies, procedures, oversight, and internal controls were key in some way.

For most residents, “audit” means checking the accuracy of accounting entries and financial statements. But egregious financial abuses in the private sector about 10 years ago (Enron, Tyco, Worldcom are names one might recall) made it clear that lax operational controls, not strictly financial controls, entailed risks that had dire consequences for financial survivability. A new term, enterprise risk management, suggests the broadened nature of today’s audit activities.

The Longmeadow Charter Transition Team provided details to govern the Audit Committee created under section 7-9 of the Longmeadow Charter. The section Duties of the Audit Committee lists:

  • Recommends and evaluates the independent auditor for the town.
    Encourages and recommends an audit plan base on town-wide (including schools) risk assessment developed by department heads and the town manager.
  • Reviews annual financial statements of the town financial offices and the independent auditors financial recommendations.
  • Reviews the efficacy of internal fiscal controls and encourages corrective action on those control or accounting issues identified in the independent auditor’s “management letter”.
  • Reviews the Town’s bonded indebtedness and makes recommendations for maintaining desired bond rating.
  • Recommends the use of special counsel or experts to assist in study work.
  • Is a resource to the Select Board and School Committee on financial issues.
  • Surfaces opportunities for cost and efficiency improvements.
  • Orients new members and encourages continued education of its members.

While the Audit Committee is strictly advisory, this lists of duties indicates the Committee can have a major influence on the operations and financial stability of the Town.

The Audit Committee has two voting Member vacancies and two non-voting Associate Member vacancies to be filled on July 1 of this year. Residents with experience in accounting, finance, law or general management are urged to apply. It’s a great spot from which to get to know your town government and to help make it more effective.

You can learn more about the Audit Committee on the town website and the Longmeadow Community Bulletin Board where you can find the Annual Committee/ Board Vacancy Notice with an application form and other information.

Applications must be received at the Select Board office by 4:00 p.m. May 11, 2009.

Ernest Welker, ChairLongmeadow Audit Committee

Monday, April 20, 2009

Community Preservation Act- Article 28

Article 28 at the Longmeadow Town Meeting will reduce the Community Preservation Surcharge from 1% to 0.25%.

While I, like most people, would love to reduce my taxes, approving this article would be very shortsighted. Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds allow us to do projects which would otherwise not get done.
[see Annual Town Meeting warrant]

Last year Town Meeting approved six projects using CPA funds. These projects are completed or in the process of being completed. We were able to provide new recreational opportunities at the Senior Center, complete exterior work on the Community House, and preserve historic town records and pictures. Without CPA funds, all of these projects would have had to use other town resources or raise private funds. In the case of the town records and images, waiting would have potentially lost them forever.

This year Town Meeting has four new projects on the warrant. One of these is to complete a project started with private funds to remove an invasive weed from the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge. Without these funds, the project would not be completed and the results acheived to date would be lost in a short time. We could potentially lose a beautiful town resource.
[see the 2008 CPC applications for additional information about the four proposed projects]

What projects will the future bring?
There are more town records to be preserved. The Housing Authority is developing ideas to help seniors stay in their homes. The town is working on a complete plan to renovate the Community House. The Town Hall may also need renovations. While I hope Twin Hills is successful as a private golf course, if it is not, the Town has the right of first refusal to purchase the property. Any one of these last three projects would require a substantial investment. The CPA surcharge allows us to have the funds available if we need them. We can collect the funds with a small surcharge over time and receive matching funds from the state, rather than require a large tax increase at one time with no state match.

What will you save if the surcharge is reduced? The average homeowner will save $34 a year.

What will we lose? The town will lose $75,000 annually in state matching funds.

Article 28 is supposed to save us money. In reality, it will cost us money. More importantly, it will cost us the ability to continue to preserve our town’s resources. Please vote NO on Article 28 at the Town Meeting on April 28th.

Bill Hoff
Chairperson- Longmeadow Community Preservation Committee