Land keeping a close eye on town budget

Thu, 01/30/2020 - 6:00pm

At the Town Council meeting on Jan. 15, Finance Director Amy Land gave a brief but succinct account of how the town’s finances are shaping up mid-way through the fiscal year. 

“We need to be very conservative,” said Land at that meeting, referencing the outlook for the next six to 18 months.

Land said that, coming off a strong summer season, building permits and various fees that come through the town clerk’s office were trending downward, and there are some long-term employee absences — positions that need to be filled with temporary hires — that are also impacting the town’s finances.

In a followup discussion with Land on Jan. 28, she pointed out that the town’s overall fiscal health was strong.

“Reserves are strong, taxes are strong, seasonal revenue is strong,” said Land. The 2020 budget for New Shoreham is $14,966,003.

“A lot of what the town is facing this year is employee and staffing-driven. We have had turnover,” she said. Former Town Manager Ed Roberge resigned unexpectedly. Building Official Marc Tillson will retire in the fall. Harbormaster Steve Land will be moving on in two weeks to take a job in New York. “We also have long-term absences,” said Land.

These are short-term issues, said Land, which reflects the “reality of keeping the business running. It just takes more money sometimes.”

Land said the town will also begin taking on some new debt service, such as the $1.5 million allocated for the senior employee house on the Thomas property, that will increase the town’s expenses in the next fiscal year.

When asked if the town had a lot of wiggle room for cuts in discretionary spending to help ease the financial picture in the short term, Land said flatly “no.”

As an example of how tight things are, Land said that increasing local taxes each year by four percent raises about $398,000 in revenue. The combined expenses for town employees, teachers, police, etc., for 2021 is projected to be $2,125,421, an increase of $137,700 over the current expenditures. This means that about one-third of that $398,000 will be used to cover just those increase s alone, leaving the rest of the new revenue — $260,300 — to be spread out over all other town departments and the school.

There are also opportunities to reduce spending: capital projects. These projects, Land said, can be deferred because “either they’re not ready or you can’t afford them. Capital projects are always on the chopping block.”

What probably will not happen during the next few budget cycles is the implementation of any “fun or new initiatives” for the town, said Land.

But, as the town’s departments begin to shape their 2021 budgets, Land said it may be time for the town to clearly assess what kind of services and amenities it wants to provide with what it can actually afford to provide.

As an example, Land said she would encourage all departments, as they formulate next year’s budget, to make what she called “reasonable requests” for services or capital projects they would like to see happen. It doesn’t mean that those projects or services will be funded, Land said, but she said that by including much-needed or long-wanted services or projects in their budget proposals, the town may get a clearer picture of what its budgets will look like in the near future. This will make budget projections a little easier, and provide a better picture of what property taxes may look like in future years.

“This may not be the year you’re likely to get it,” said Land of any proposed capital improvement project. “But it helps us evaluate what our priorities will be.”

She added, “It’s time for the town to have a conversation to balance this all out,” meaning to take the conversation beyond just setting budgets that will cover salaries and other known expenses, but to begin factoring in such things as housing costs, social services, and the needs for the town’s growing elder population in order to see what future budgets may realistically look like.

Land said she would have clearer numbers when she presents at the Town Council meeting in mid-March, but she said she’ll be keeping an eye on the town’s finances and expenses for the foreseeable future.

“It’s been a tight year, and we’re going into a tighter year,” said Land.