By Beth David, Editor
The Fairhaven Select Board heard some grim news at its meeting on 2/21/23, with the town’s new, temporary budget officer telling them the town is facing up to a $750,000 deficit in the FY24 budget.’
Fairhaven Town Administrator Angie Lopes Ellison introduced Rich Bienvenue, who is the Assistant Town Administrator/Finance Director for the town of Eastham, Mass. He has been helping out a day or so a week while Fairhaven searches for a Finance Director. He told the board that expenses are going up six percent, but revenues are only going up four percent this year.
Ms. Ellison and Mr. Bienvenue presented a preliminary budget plan to the board.
SB Chairperson Stasia Powers said the plan was just an “overview.” She said they did not expect to get into a “deep dive” on line items. That will happen in the budget meetings.
Mr. Bienvenue said the intention was simply to give the board an update to give them an idea of what the town is facing. The town has some “challenges,” he said.
Mr. Bienvenue also said that the challenges might “lessen” as they get more information. Revenue projections may not fall as much, he said.
The general fund operating budget is up $3.3 million, which is over six percent, said Mr. Bienvenue. The revenues that will fund it, are only up four percent.
“So you’ve got a fundamental challenge,” said Mr. Bienvenue.
With raises going up five to six percent each year, but revenues up only four percent, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out” that eventually it will catch up, he said.
“You’ve got some wage and inflationary pressures on your budget,” said Mr. Bienvenue.
He estimated the shortfall will be about $750,000, and said it was a “big challenge” to find places to cut in the budget to reach that amount.
Mr. Bienvenue gave the board some projections on costs to individual homeowners if the town decided to implement an override of Proposition 2 1/2, which limits the amount of taxes municipalities can raise through property taxes (the tax levy).
Taxes for a median single family home could increase by as much as $170, to $3362 if the town decides to fund the increase somehow, instead of finding cuts to the budget.
He said the budget was “tight” and could not support the $750K cut, so they needed to consider the override.
“I shudder to think about it,” said SB member Bob Espindola, about the override.
The override could be a general one for the overall budget, or for specific items, such as the two new firefighters the town is hiring.
The town does have some free cash that will most likely cover the difference. But that money is usually used for capital expenses, and other one time costs.
Mr. Bienvenue said it was not good practice to use one-time funds for recurring expenses. That is a structural deficiency.
“You have a couple,” he said, adding he does not propose the question lightly. “You have some decisions to make”
“The structural issues can’t remain and have a sustainable operation,” he said.
The board will be engaged in an ambitious budget meeting schedule with the Finance Committee, meeting at least twice a week, and with other departments to get the budget ready for Town Meeting on May 6.
Ms. Ellison said she was clearing her schedule for the next few weeks to work on the budget, and suggested the board members be prepared for a lot of meetings.
Ms. Ellison also had several staffing updates.
Randall “Randy” Bassett has been hired for Building Commissioner. He told the board he has worked in building his entire life. He is currently the building inspector for the town of Brewster.
He said he is a “hockey” dad with three children and has been married for 20 years.
The board voted unanimously to approve the appointment.
Ms. Ellison also informed the board that she appointed Joanne Correia as interim Assessor. Ms. Correia has been working in the Assessor’s Office, and Ms. Ellison said she believed Ms. Correia has the ability to do the work with some training.
Ms. Ellison also told the board that the town had a “few candidates” for the Finance Director position, and she will be starting interviews soon.
A drastic turnaround for police dispatchers happened immediately after the contract was settled. Ms. Ellison told the board they were “struggling” to fill the dispatcher positions, that it was “almost impossible.” After the contract was settled, the town received interest from 12 candidates.
The police department is also looking to fill six police officer positions. A couple are open now, and others will be opening up soon due to anticipated retirements. Ms. Ellison said the town needs to start the Civil Service process now.
The board also discussed the deficiencies in the town’s emergency dispatching system. The Collins Center for Public Management conducted a study and outlined the problems with Fairhaven’s current system.
All 911 calls go to the police department, and medical calls are transmitted to the fire department. The study concluded that the town needed to add a dispatcher to each shift, so that two are available to handle more than one call at a time.
The study identified a couple of options for Fairhaven to join regional dispatches that already exist.
The town could also attempt to create a regional dispatch with area municipalities.
Ms. Ellison said that she observed at the Fire Department and saw the fire chief needing to fill the dispatcher role. She said it was “not the most effective” way to dispatch and the fire chief should not be dispatching calls.
SB member Keith Silvia asked if the Call Firefighters could help with dispatch.
Ms. Ellison said they are a “consideration.”
“Anything and everything is on the table,” she said.
Ms. Ellison also informed the board that her new office furniture arrived and has been set up and “looks wonderful.”
She also told the board that the counter in the SB/TA office will be moved. She had held off on the project to “re-evaluate.”
Her office has people in and out on a regular basis and the way to her office is “like a train station,” she said. Only one person can get through.
“It’s like managing traffic,” said Ms. Ellison.
The counter will be moved to the Collector’s Office.
“They are excited,” to get it back, she said. “I think they miss having it.”
Matthew Loo, who runs two aquaculture sites in Fairhaven waters, ran into a bit of a glitch when he tried to renew his license. He had hoped to renew his license for ten years. He has been in operation since 2012.
Ms. Ellison said she read the state law and checked with Town Counsel, and discovered that the board does not have the authority to renew the license because it is a public space. Only Town Meeting can renew an aquaculture license.
Ms. Ellison said that she would prepare an article for the TM warrant for all the aquaculture farms in Fairhaven waters.
Mr. Loo said he did not know of any town that required a TM vote. Ms. Ellison read from Chapter 40, Section 3, and used an example that Town Counsel sent from Duxbury.
Ms. Espindola said he understood that businesses want longer leases for stability, but asked if there was a specific reason Mr. Loo wanted the ten years.
“Just to avoid coming here every three years,” said Mr. Loo.
Harbormaster Tim Cox sang Mr. Loo’s praises, saying he has been doing an “awesome job out there.”
“I haven’t had any hiccups with any of his stuff,” said Mr. Cox, adding that Mr. Loo even helps with monitoring equipment from other farms, too.
Ms. Powers said the concern was not if he should have a license, it was about doing it correctly.
The board voted unanimously to approve Mr. Loo’s license, pending approval by TM in May. Meanwhile he can operate under a “grace period.”
In another matter, the board approved a shade tree removal bylaw that creates a path for individual homeowners and developers to remove non-hazardous shade trees in the public way. The requirements include that another tree must be planted that is at least three inches in diameter, or several trees to equal the diameter of the tree taken down.
Tree Warden Don Collasius told the board that the town needed a policy so homeowners can remove trees when necessary. He said he had a pending request to remove a tree on Welcome Street so the homeowner could install a driveway.
Click here to download the 2/23/23 issue: 02-23-23 FPSFoodPopup
Support local journalism, donate to the Neighb News with PayPal