Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Finance Committee has so far reviewed the Fiscal Year 2022 budgets of most town departments, including the “Big Four”— Fire/EMS, Police, Schools the Department of Public Works— on 2/25 & 3/4.
The School Department, like all departments, was instructed to cut 10% off the bat. Its $400,000 cut to its requested operating budget, including the $200,000 that Interim Town Administrator and Finance Director/ Treasurer/Collector Wendy Graves told them to also factor in due to a decline in school choice income, will be deeply felt.
The proposed $22,789,000 budget is a 3.89% increase over FY21, which, said Superintendent DR. Robert Baldwin, combined with the 1.1% increase of FY20, is only about a 5% increase over two years.
“Our hope is to maintain, expand, and enhance the educational program… as we get back to a more normal next year,” said Dr. Baldwin. “And we hope to be as open as we can in the process.”
The district’s main concerns this upcoming year are pandemic-related learning gaps and social/emotional wellbeing issues and restoring things to what students and teachers knew pre-pandemic. But as it stands now, the district is down 89 students, which is typical across the state today, said Dr. Baldwin. Some students left the public school setting to pass the pandemic home-schooled, but Dr. Baldwin anticipates that most, if not all, will return. The Acushnet student population is down after relative consistency over the last five or so years.
Nonetheless, it is a level-service budget Dr. Baldwin presented, but he reminded the FinCom that the town used several one-time-spending funding sources to balance the school budget last year, including CARES Act funding, of over $1 million to fund the hybrid and remote-learning programs, personal protective equipment, and other mitigating measures to control the spread of COVID-19.
For Dr. Baldwin, this is not the year to make significant cuts to schools: “My heart breaks for our kids… and I’m not settling for a dime less for those (level) services….”
He said they would plan for level services and hope for federal relief and increased town revenue this year.
Last year, the town used $400,000 in free cash to balance the town budget, said FinCom chair Padraic Elliott.
“And we all held our breath and said hopefully this is a one-time thing,” he said, adding that six months later the town was dipping into free cash again, this time for $285K.
Mr. Elliott wanted to know the precise impacts of the cut, and Dr. Baldwin said he would present that to FinCom ahead of its votes to recommend budgets to Town Meeting.
Mr. Elliott said the $400K would have to come from somewhere, either free cash or other departments.
“We just can’t take money out of the air,” said Mr. Elliott. “There’s a lot of cutting across a lot of departments, and everybody’s going to be running pretty close to the bone.”
FinCom member Kevin Gallagher reminded the committee that during its meeting with the police and fire chiefs, FinCom said it would prioritize public safety should revenue increase.
“We can’t be promising that to everyone,” cautioned Mr. Gallagher.
When School Committee member Pam Kuechler asked for an explanation of the $400K cut, Ms. Graves said that while working on the budget and making cuts relative to revenue reductions, she discovered the school district’s $200K decrease in revenue. Dr. Baldwin called the additional $200K cut “an extra whack” and asked whether other town departments with revenue decreases had to make the same relative cuts.
School Committee member Brian Munroe said he understood the need for cuts amid decreasing revenues, but noted that in the past, when school revenues increased, the schools did not get a “bonus.”
“We do have a hard time swallowing the additional cut that the other departments aren’t be asking to take,” said Mr. Monroe.
Town Accountant Anne Carreiro said she would work with Dr. Baldwin looking at special funds and revolving funds to potentially mitigate the cuts.
In contrast to school choice revenue, the town’s school choice expense went up an additional $100,000 to send approximately 20 more Fairhaven students out of the district.
During the 3/4 meeting, Highway Superintendent John Charbonneau said he did not know how the department will function with the drastic cuts.
Beginning with the tools line item, $2,000 was cut from a budget of only $2,500.
“I don’t see how we’re going to be able to do it,” said Mr. Charbonneau. “[$500] will only get us a couple of months into the fiscal year for tools for mechanics.”
Maintenance line items for buildings and equipment were cut to $0 by $10,000 and $6,000, respectively. He said they would not able to function without those funds.
“I’m hoping that [Ms. Graves] is going to allow us to look at this a little further and address some of these items,” said public works Superintendent Vincent Furtado.
For example, he said, Ms. Graves initially took $30,000 from repair and maintenance of vehicles, a 50% cut from the FY21 budget of $60,000.
“She was nice enough after I asked to take $15,000 each (from curbing and from street resurfacing) minimizing the [$30K] from the vehicle repair because our vehicles take a beating…”
“The whole [building maintenance budget] was cut,” added Mr. Furtado. “I mean, we have a lot of garage doors in the BPW and if one goes off the track … or awry, which happens more often than I wish, we’re calling the door folks in and we have no budget for the buildings.”
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