FALMOUTH — The municipal and school budgets presented at a special Town Council meeting last week will neither increase nor decrease the existing property tax rate.

Councilors all praised school administrators for their efforts to bring in a nearly flat budget. Coming in at just over $25.2 million, the fiscal 2010 budget reflects an increase of $105,000 from the current fiscal year.

Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle III told the council the budget had “weighed heavily on our minds” as he and his staff began the process of finding ways to reduce costs while continuing to provide a high level of education. Some of the reductions were “one-time opportunities,” he said, that included savings from lower-than-expected gas and oil prices and from the results of work done during the past year to increase energy efficiency. Others involved delaying expenditures on things that were in budget requests but were postponed. Still others were permanent reductions.

But, Entwistle warned, “not all (of the reductions) will be permanent or sustainable.”

Some of the savings come from a change in the kindergarten schedule that reduces the number of bus runs; reductions in athletic transportation and games; a new, in-house teacher professional development model and a two-day reduction in the school calendar.

Spending requests were also curtailed, and elimination of a second-grade teacher, fifth-grade teacher, middle school functional life skills teacher, 3 1/2 special education technicians and a technology position produced savings of $410,000.

As they look to the future, Entwistle said, educators would like to explore more ways to collaborate with the town on technology and in other areas.

The School Board unanimously endorsed the budget, he said, and will vote on it April 6.

Entwistle and School Board Finance Committee Chairwoman Kathy Hillman Reed urged the Council to set the school budget approval referendum for May 5 so there would be adequate time for a second referendum if it is voted down the first time.

“There’s no guarantee the voters will pass it,” Hillman Reed said. “We need to give ourselves plenty of time.”

While councilors were enthusiastic about the budget, they chose not to follow the board’s recommendation for an earlier vote. They scheduled the school budget referendum for June 9, the same date as the municipal elections.

“I would like to see the maximum number of voters participate in this that we can muster. We will see a better turnout in June than in May,” Councilor Tony Payne said. “I will vote for this, this is a great budget; it will pass.”

Councilor Bonny Rodden said she would vote for the June referendum because she had received calls from the public complaining about having a separate vote for the new elementary school last fall.

“There is no impact to the tax rate; I don’t see how this could be voted down,” Rodden said.

Saying she took “what the School Board wants and needs very seriously,” Councilor Teresa Pierce disagreed with Rodden.

“I am glad you think you know exactly what the voters will do,” she said. “I’m not going to go that far because I think these are interesting times.”

In the end, Rodden, Payne, Councilor Dave Libby and Council Chairman Will Armitage voted in favor of the June 9 date, with Pierce, Councilor Joe Wrobleski and Councilor Cathy Breen against it and in favor of the earlier date sought by the School Board.

On the municipal side, while Town Manager Nathan Poore said “some things came easy” in the budget’s planning stages, he said other choices were much harder to make.

Poore said he and his staff looked at making reductions that could be sustained wherever possible because “rebuilding is too expensive.”

“We communicated to death this budget,” he said, “… innovative idea after innovative idea.”

With a commitment not to balance the budget by increasing fees, Poore said nothing was off the table as they looked for areas to reduce spending.

At $10.5 million, the fiscal 2010 budget is down nearly $370,000 from this year’s $10.5 million, with no impact to the property tax rate. Some of the savings were found by extending the open space funding schedule to 12 to 13 years from 10 and allocating $280,000 a year instead of $500,000; eliminating plans for an ice rink roof and moving to a four-day work week at Town Hall. Several vacant town jobs were also eliminated – a finance position, a police officer and a public works employee.

The new budget also reflects a decision to close the Pleasant HIll Fire Station.

Significant increases in the operating budget include a $70,000 Metro membership, $32,000 for increased paramedic service, partnership in the regional crime lab for $8,000 and salary increases totalling $55,000.

A decision that Poore said initially appears contrary to his efforts to save money is to buy a roll-off truck to transport the “silver bullets” – the community bins that are available for residents to deposit their recyclables. By purchasing a slightly used truck, Poore said the town could save $50,000 in the first year.

The Finance Committee had also asked Poore to research the amount of savings the town would see if it closed the transfer station.

“It seems to me we have what I would call the Cadillac of solid waste management going on in Falmouth right now –curbside  recycling, curbside pickup, transfer station and silver bullets,” Breen said. “In a year where we’re looking at trying to do things differently, could we save some money by closing (the transfer station)?”

After looking at the numbers, Poore recommended keeping the transfer station open, at least this year.

“I feel compelled to put the public on notice that maybe we’re not going to have this forever,” Breen said. “Every single person disposes of household waste exactly the way they want to.”

Rodden suggested assigning a committee to explore the “creative ideas” the council was hearing and to conduct public hearings and possibly a survey to understand what residents want.

“Trash is a really big issue,” Rodden said. “If you don’t provide the services then we will really hear about it on the council.”

Councilors also heard from Fire/EMS Chief Howard Rice with more information on closing the Pleasant Hill Fire Station.

“I feel very comfortable we can actually increase the level of service a little bit by actually not having a station and using our other resources,” Rice said.

The council will hear public comments on the fire station closure and the budget at its meetings on April 13 and April 27. Councilors will make a decision on the fire station and budget approval on April 27.

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]

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