With little fanfare, the Select Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to accept the fiscal 2022 budget recommended by the town’s Finance Committee.
FinCom’s budget proposes the town spend $33.9 million in the coming fiscal year to pay for schools, debt, and municipal services, an approximately 4.2% increase over the current year’s budget. With a revenue forecast of nearly $34 million, the budget shows a surplus of $53,000.
But more changes lie ahead. Town Administrator Tim Bragan cautioned that the surplus will be needed to cover anticipated wage increases in two contracts still being negotiated with the DPW workers union and the Harvard Teachers Association. Other unknowns, he said, include state aid, which won’t be decided by the Legislature until summer, and the amount of relief the town can expect from the just-passed federal American Rescue Plan.
Board members received FinCom’s recommendations on March 4 and have had two weeks to review them, but they had little to say. The most recent figures include reductions in Transfer Station hours, hauling fees, and election supplies, and lower estimates for the use of gas and heating oil in municipal buildings, for a savings of $19,550. “Those [cuts] seem sensible,” said member Lucy Wallace. But it was a small amount, she said. “It feels like the peeling of one last layer of the onion,” after having asked the schools and town departments to eliminate hundreds of thousands of dollars from their budgets to implement the level-funding goal set by the board and by FinCom last fall.
Wallace agreed that the $81,715 in wage increases and $7,363 in other expenses that had been restored to the budget by FinCom were necessary, as was another $156,561 to pay for several warrant articles, two of which would be paid for with 2021 free cash. “I’m comfortable with accepting the Finance Committee’s recommendations,” she concluded.
Member Kara Minar asked what would happen if the unsigned labor contracts require more spending than is available in the surplus. If that happened, said Chair Alice von Loesecke, the DPW and schools would have to absorb the excess by cutting elsewhere.
There was no further discussion, and with a 5-0 vote, the board accepted and returned the budget, unchanged, to FinCom. FinCom and the Select Board have until April 1 to make last-minute adjustments, after which it goes to the printer for May’s Town Meeting.
In other business, the board agreed to depart from recent tradition and not mail copies of the annual finance and Town Meeting warrant booklet to every household in Harvard and Devens. Instead, households will receive a card inviting them to pick up a copy at Town Hall or the library. Extra copies will be available at Town Meeting. Bragan, who suggested the change, estimated, in an email to the Press, that the move would save the town roughly $1,000— one-third of the normal $3,000 it costs the town to print and distribute the booklets.