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COVID-19 delays Town Meeting and elections, threatens FY2021 budget

The relentless spread of COVID-19 and the unprecedented efforts to control it is wreaking havoc with plans for the familiar spring rituals of town government and threatening to upend next fiscal year’s budget.

Efforts to control the spread have already forced a delay in the Town Caucus, Spring Town Meeting, Town Election, and the special 37th Middlesex District state election to fill the seat left empty by the December resignation of former Rep. Jennifer Benson.

REVISED MEETING AND ELECTION DATES

Special 37th Middlesex District State Election: June 2, 2020
Town Caucus: May 11, 2020
Spring Town Meeting: June 20, 2020
Town Election: June 23, 2020

And although the effects have yet to be felt, state leaders expect the month-long shutdown of businesses throughout Massachusetts to severely depress April, May, and June state revenues—and that the impact is likely to grow worse in fiscal 2021. A loss of local receipts or state aid will inevitably force a reckoning with Harvard’s own spending plans for this fiscal year and next. (For more on the state and federal response so far, see “State and federal officials provide fragmented response to COVID-19 pandemic.”)

At the Select Board’s meeting this week, Town Administrator Tim Bragan warned that without income from sales and excise taxes, gaming, and lottery ticket sales, the state faces a dramatic drop in fourth-quarter income. State budget leaders from the governor’s office and Legislature are scheduled to meet with experts at a round table discussion next Tuesday, April 14. The event will be closed to the public, but streamed at malegislature.com/Events, and is expected to shed light on the state’s fiscal 2021 outlook.

Massachusetts has more than a billion dollars in its rainy day fund, Bragan noted. He said he anticipated that some of that money will be used to maintain state aid this quarter.  But it is vital, he said, to plan for potential financial shocks; he has already ordered town departments to freeze all nonemergency spending for the remaining weeks of fiscal 2020, which ends June 30. He told the board it’s likely that Town Meeting will reject the $317,000 override needed to balance the fiscal 2021 budget. At the request of Alice von Loesecke, Select Board chair, Bragan will ask the Finance Committee to prepare options for the board’s review at a special meeting on April 28. FinCom was scheduled to take up the challenge at its regularly scheduled April 8 meeting.

To reduce the burden on taxpayers who may be struggling with lost income, the town has extended the due date of 2020 property tax bills to June 1, 2020. This applies only to fourth-quarter bills that were originally due May 1. Interest will still be applied to unpaid 2020 bills from the first, second, and third quarters. The federal and Massachusetts 2019 individual income tax filing and payment deadlines have already been extended from April 15 to July 15. The board also agreed to allow Fivesparks to delay payment of its rent for use of the old library until the building is able to reopen.

As for the annual rituals of town meeting and election, the dates for both have been pushed into late June (see below). On Tuesday, the Select Board approved a new warrants and ballot. Only the dates of the two events have changed. The Spring Town Meeting warrant proposes the same 21 articles approved by the Select Board last month, including a $33.8 million omnibus budget with a $317,000 override. The Town Election ballot includes four questions, one for the override and three to approve borrowing to pay for three projects: construction of an addition to Hildreth House; replacement of the middle school ramp; and replacement of the roof of the old library and the repair of masonry.

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