BURLINGTON – For the first time in its history, Town Meeting approved an Operating Budget outdoors at its session last night on Varsity Field.

This Town Meeting was originally scheduled for May 11 in Burlington High School’s Fogelberg Performing Arts Center, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced town officials to change the date to June 10 and relocate outside to Varsity Field where ample social distancing space exists. The session went smoothly for those in attendance as they sat spaciously on Varsity Field.

Town Meeting firmly supported the fiscal year 2021 Operating Budget of $148,317,413 during last night’s session. The Operating Budget is made up of all the town departments and their respective budgets for fiscal year 2021, which were all approved by Town Meeting.

The template used for the fiscal year 2020 budget goals, consisting of the following objectives:

The overall Operating Budget increase cannot be more than 3.5 percent; the tax levy (the amount of money raised through property taxes) cannot be greater than 4.5 percent; accommodated accounts cannot increase by more than 7 percent; and the ultimate goal is to maintain services at +/- 10 percent of budget (stabilization, free cash, excess, taxing capacity), avoid layoffs wherever possible; avoid overrides, and avoid user-fees (busing, trash, school athletics).

These guidelines were recommended and ratified by Ways & Means and the Board of Selectmen.

All the line items that made up the total town Operating Budget were revealed and some of the pricier budgets for fiscal year 2021 required further discussion, as they were “held” for that very purpose. However, all of the additional conversation that took place had little substance and ended up being situations where fundamental clarification was needed.

In the end, all the budget items that make up the $148,317,413 Operating Budget were approved by a clear majority.

The costliest budgets

Local Education: $68,089,077 (up 3.79 percent); the priciest budget of them all saw a modest increase just under 3.8 percent, primarily due to step and staffing increases. These requests are strictly tied to the demands and needs of students in the district.

Town Administrator/Board of Selectmen: $662,382 (down .78 percent)

Accounting: $448,863 (up 19.39 percent)

Assessors: $410,983 (up 1.21 percent)

Treasurer/Collector: $718,791 (up .18 percent)

Central Administration: $17,876,394 (up 5.66 percent); Chapter 32B – Health and other employee benefits continue to be a challenging component of the overall budget. The town has worked very closely with employee unions to monitor trends in health claims and review plan design changes to keep the cost increases to the program at a modest level with some success over the past several years. Past performance is no guarantee of future success and the Central Administration will continue to work diligently in tandem with its employees to contain costs wherever possible. This budget line item will require a 5 percent increase for fiscal year 2021. Transfer to Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) Trust Fund – This is the sixth year of providing funding within the Operating Budget to offset the Town’s OPEB liability. The increase is reflected by the funding plan adopted in fiscal year 2016. OPEB is up 9.94 percent, making up a large portion of the 5.66 percent increase.

Management Information Systems (MIS): $662,929 (up 4.23 percent); this budget has been revamped to prepare the town for 4-to-5-year replacement cycles of desktops and laptops, along with robust backup and server solutions. Although a few years old, they continue to address the recommendations as presented through the Webb report and seek to address issues that have plagued information systems. They will continue to monitor these changes and assess, as they progress, what is needed to implement other aspects of the report. They will be permitting software maintenance increased from three departments to unlimited departments.

Police Department: $9,188,359 (up 1.19 percent); the budget focuses on personnel while trying to maintain the services that residents have come to expect. Full-time salaries will increase by 1.06 percent, which includes step and longevity increases, and holiday pay and other contractual incentives are also included under full-time salaries. Overtime salaries are set to be level funded. Traffic supervisor salaries will increase by 2.83 percent. The remainder of the increase to part-time salaries is attributed to a funding request to continue staffing two part-time positions (mental health clinician and recovery coach) for which grant funding is ending this fiscal year. Police Chief Michael Kent professed the two positions have “proven to be invaluable to our department in helping residents and citizens in crisis, due to mental health issues and substance use disorders.”

Fire Department: $8,604,833 (up 2.68 percent); the concern on the operational side is maintaining pace with costs. Their budget is 92 percent salaries so any allowable increases are mostly absorbed by contractual obligations. Overtime salaries are increasing 16.49 percent, due to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the town and Firefighters Union. This increase is also based on the projected overtime costs for the current fiscal year 2020.

Department of Public Works: $12,302,686 (up 2.56 percent); this department remains the largest on the town’s side, as is the case annually. It is comprised of six departments - Administration, Building and Cemetery, Engineering, Highway, Water/Sewer, and Water Treatment. With the closing of landfills, the disposal cost of trash, catch-basin cleanings, street-sweepings and water treatment sludge has increased dramatically, and will continue to increase in the coming years. Solid waste disposal costs are expected to increase to $90+ per ton in the near future. In addition to waste disposal costs, the DPW continues to show increases in the water and sewer contracted services for purchasing water from the MWRA. This fiscal year, the town will be purchasing 70MG of water at $292,700. A portion of this ($130,000) will be transferred from the water stabilization fund. The remaining cost will be funded through a reduction in chemical and electricity costs.

Town Meeting ended up supporting all of the items that made up the $148,317,413 fiscal year 2021 Operating Budget.

Impressively, Town Meeting started and finished the full agenda (with an abundance of postponements) last night, so the body will meet again in September at a location to-be-determined.

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