ACUSHNET — Voters attending Monday night’s annual town meeting faithfully followed the recommendations of the Finance Committee and endorsed a $27.5 million “general fund” municipal operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
More than half of the total town budget — $16.1 million — is earmarked for education in the FY 2019 spending package. The local school budget was approved with a modest increase in funds, at $14.3 million, with another $1.85 million being budgeted for vocational school tuitions and transportation.
School department capital requests for FY2019 on the warrant totaled $284,000. The approved funds included $20,000 for repairs to the bathrooms at Acushnet Elementary School; $50,000 for roof maintenance and repairs; $20,000 for improvements to the AECS playground; $75,000 for video cameras and security equipment; $65,000 for a new master clock system; and $54,000 for driveway patching and sealcoating at the two schools.
The general fund budget also included spending $3.3 million on public safety, $3.3 million on public works, and yet another $3.3 million for municipal employee health insurance and pension costs.
Subsequent votes on other articles added appropriations for $1.4 million from the Golf Club Enterprise Fund and $596,343 from the Sewer Enterprise Fund to fund the operations of those two town departments in the coming year.
Revolving fund appropriations used $329,000 in Emergency Medical Services revenues to fund an $80,000 “reimbursement” to the reserve fund for the recent purchase of a used ladder truck for the fire department; $135,000 for police radio system upgrades; $48,000 for a biowaste destruction system for the fire/EMS departments; $29,000 for mechanical CPR devices for police cruisers; and $25,000 for fire/EMS radio replacements.
Balancing the budget for FY2019 was once again “a considerable challenge” for the town’s financial team and the Finance Committee, a message to voters suggested at the start of the 46-article warrant booklet for the three-hour meeting.
Tax limitations under Proposition 2½ and modest increases in state aid will make for tight town finances in the next fiscal year, the Finance Committee advised, and generally, voters adopted their recommendations for spending in most matters.
Transfers from about $1.6 million in surplus funds from the past fiscal year, referred to as “free cash” in motions, funded numerous small appropriations for projects such as a town employee wage and classification study, communications and security improvements at fire stations, Town Hall and the Parting Ways administrative center, and some office furniture for various town departments.
As recommended, the meeting voted to establish a new special education stabilization fund to serve as a “safety valve” to handle unexpected hikes in spending on that volatile school funding area. Surplus funds were tapped for the $100,000 to start the fund.
MEALS TAX REJECTED
In a quiet demonstration of taxpayer backlash against new taxes, the meeting voted down a proposed three-quarter percent meals tax, saying the increased charge on food and coffee would have more impact on town residents than visiting out-of-towners. The local tax was projected to generate about $68,000 to $70,000 per year in new tax revenues for the town treasury.
Chairman of Selectmen Michael Cioper and Selectman Roger Cabral campaigned in favor of the small increase, while the Finance Committee had split 5-2 on the matter, with the majority in favor.
The impact would be 75 cents on a $100 meal tab, a negligible impact, Cioper suggested; Cabral cited a figure of two cents extra for the morning cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Cabral said the extra money would help the town cut down its growing liability for retiree health insurance costs.
Selectman Kevin Gaspar led the opposition party, saying residents are already “over-taxed” and arguing “we do not need another tax in Acushnet.”
Resident Tom DeCosta also spoke against the proposal, predicting, “Once this tax in initiated, you can be sure it will never go away... and someday, it will be increased.” Fellow resident David Davignon agreed, noting, “Taxes start out small, but they never go away.”
At the end of the discussion, the counted show of hands indicated the measure had failed, with 76 opposed, and only 28 in favor.
Another of the biggest debates of the night came on Article 18, on appropriations to the town’s OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits) for retirees. The article suggested $199,876 from an existing OPEB stabilization account be transferred to a state pension fund with a higher yield of interest, along with another $100,000 from overlay surplus money.
The two appropriations passed with the required two thirds majority after Town Administrator Brian Noble explained that the higher interest from the state fund and the extra $100,000 deposit would help cut the town’s estimated liability for OPEB by 30 percent over time.
RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA BAN
Having rejected allowing any sort of adult recreational marijuana establishments in Acushnet during the recent annual election, residents had to formalize the business ban with a bylaw prohibiting such operations from all zoning districts in town.
Existing regulations now allow medical marijuana businesses in identified districts, but the commercial cultivation, processing, testing, and sale of recreational marijuana is officially prohibited throughout the town. The measure passed without discussion, and by a wide margin, with only a few hand raised in opposition.
Other votes authorized selectmen to transfer custody of the closed Russell Memorial Library to the Acushnet Housing Authority, and approved $15,000 in funding for consultants to study the feasibility of the building’s possible conversion into affordable housing units for local veterans.