DARTMOUTH — At a meeting of the Select Board, School Committee and Finance Committee at Town Hall, the three traded input as they work to finalize their financial recommendations for fiscal 2019 to the spring town meeting.
This year, once again, municipal revenues continue to show meager growth. Unfortunately, expenses and proposed spending are growing faster, and the proposed fiscal 2019 budget plan shows a theoretical deficit of nearly $107,000, town Budget & Finance director and interim co-town administrator Gregory Barnes noted at the start of the three-way review of town finances.
“The growth of expenditures is greater than the growth of revenues” for yet another year, Barnes told the assembled elected and appointed officials. The theoretical deficit will prompt a few more adjustments to the fiscal 2019 financial plan going to town meeting, he said.
At present, the rough numbers indicate a proposed municipal budget of $86.5 million for fiscal 2019, with the $3.3 million increase in funding sought about 3.95 percent more than town meeting appropriated for the current fiscal year, Barnes said.
“I’m not saying that revenues are decreasing. It’s that the rate of growth is decreasing,” Barnes said. A big question mark for future town finances is whether any new revenues from potential medical marijuana dispensaries and now adult recreational marijuana production and sales businesses will be added to the municipal revenue stream soon, according to Barnes.
“Our local receipts have plateaued, and our new growth (figures) went down last year,” Barnes said. Expect the same for the fiscal year starting July 1, 2018, Barnes advised.
Residential growth projections are up a bit, but commercial development has leveled, Barnes added. Some new commercial growth, including a solar energy farm, should be expected in the near future, Barnes said.
Overall, it is neither a bright or gloomy economic future for the town in the coming fiscal year, the budget director and acting town administrator said. Just another year of cautious financial planning, based on conservative revenue and aid estimates, while also dealing with the starting payback of the new police station debt exclusion bond, Barnes said at last week's meeting.
The Dartmouth School Committee was looking for input on its proposed fiscal 2019 budget of $43 million, a 2.8 percent increase of funding over fiscal 2018, Assistant Superintendent for Finances & Operations James Kiely reported.
“It is primarily a level services budget,” about $1.1 million more than appropriated this year, Kiely said. Superintendent Bonny Gifford said a few new positions were proposed in the budget, mostly dealing with the district’s increasing focus on the social and emotional needs of growing numbers of students.
Most of the new positions called for in the public school district are for counselors, therapists and support specialists, the superintendent said.
Dealing with the ups and downs, mostly ups, of rising special education costs is an ongoing financial challenge, Kiely said. A slight increase of homeless students temporarily placed in Dartmouth hotels by state agencies reverses a recent downward trend in those local education and transportation costs.
Not included in the school budget package is about $785,000 in proposed capital improvement projects for the coming fiscal year. Barnes said recommendations for municipal capital spending include the traditional $200,000 for school technology upgrades; $185,000 in security and radio system improvements in various schools; and $400,000 for engineering plans and bid specs for a phased renovation plan for Dartmouth Memorial Stadium, controlled and maintained by the school district.
The Finance Committee will vote to finalize spending recommendations to town meeting in coming weeks, but voiced no immediate objections to the educational spending plan, including regional vocational and agricultural school funding requests. Much of the discussion of education spending focused on those unexpected vocational and agricultural school assessments, raised by FinCom members.
Regional school issues
Finance Committee member Doug Roscoe questioned why the Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical school district’s per-student spending was 1.5 percent higher than Dartmouth High’s spending. Administrative costs were 2.5 times more than what Dartmouth spends on administration expenses, he also noted.
Rising costs for the Bristol County Agricultural High School assessment were compounded by an unexpected capital debt assessment for new facilities. Together, the Dartmouth assessments for the two schools are going up over $100,000 — roughly the amount of the “projected” deficit in the town’s budget plan, School Committee member Dr. Shannon Jenkins said.
Some Finance Committee members objected to the fact that the regional school agreements give the town little or no real influence on budget planning for the regional schools.
The regional school committees have to be told to put a rein on spending, or renegotiate the assessment terms in the agreements with member towns, suggested former FinCom chairman David Tatelbaum, attending his first meeting as a Select Board member.
Selectman Shawn McDonald, elected Select Board chair earlier in the meeting, said past efforts to reopen the regional school agreements to make the assessment formula more equitable have failed, but he is willing to try again. The vocational school assessment policies have always favored New Bedford at Dartmouth’s expense, he said.
He also proposed that the town get its state legislators involved in new discussions of possible amendments to those agreements. A second proposal from McDonald was for Dartmouth to spearhead a regional summit meeting of SouthCoast town officials and state legislators to talk about regional issues and financial concerns.