© The Stoneham Independent

STONEHAM, MA - Though the mid-year rate increase will without a doubt catch many town citizens by complete surprise, some Town Hall managers may have walked into Town Meeting last May fully aware that Stoneham's refuse budget lacked adequate funding.

Last week, as the selectmen reacted to news that citizens' annual trash fee would have to be hiked by 40 percent to $200 per household, board Chair Shelly MacNeill on at least one occasion vented about the last-minute notice regarding the issue.

The $55 rate increase, which will be absorbed by homeowners over two billing cycles instead of four, was instituted just two days before Thanksgiving, a holiday which coincides with the country's busiest travel season.

"What's frustrating is this should have come to us before July of this year, and it didn't," said MacNeill.

"Somebody needs to be held accountable for that, Shelly," responded Selectman Caroline Colarusso, who represented the lone vote against the fee increase.

Prior to the posting of the selectmen's agenda for the meeting last week, there was scant public discussion that the trash budget was unbalanced, though DPW Director Robert Grover late last spring did warn about surging costs associated with the recycling industry.

Yet, absent the brief comments by MacNeill and Colarusso, the selectmen last week showed little curiosity about when and how the shortfall was discovered.

Last week, Town Accountant David Castellarin made clear that two relatively recent budget developments, a late invoice from FY'18 and a lower than anticipated number of trash service customers, compounded the shortfall issues.

However, information contained in a presentation made by Catellarin last week also indicates Stoneham's FY'19 curbside refuse budget was established with a known $210,465 structural deficit built into it.

That document also appears to indicate that when Town Meeting voters approved Stoneham's annual operating budget in May, former Town Administrator Thomas Younger — and perhaps others — knew the trash fee would have to be increased.

"FY'19 budget was based on assumption of 7,000 estimated users and fee increase effective [July 1] 2018," reads Castellarin's summary of the trash budget passed at last May's Town Meeting.

The failure to share that information with the public, if known at the spring assembly, would be particularly egregious, because on the same night, citizens rejected an initiative related to using one-third of Stoneham's $3.4 million in free cash to eliminate entirely the trash fee for a year.

Ultimately, that measure failed to pass.

During the debate, Younger spoke in opposition to raiding the one-time revenues for the so-called trash fee holiday, but mentioned nothing about the off-budget accounts being underfunded.

Because Stoneham's trash service is funded outside of the tax levy, line-item details regarding expenditures and revenues from the accounts are not included in the town's annual budget.

For that reason, year-over-year changes within the budget are somewhat difficult to track.

However, at least a portion of those expenses are footed each year through what is described in Stoneham's budget booklets as a "trash subsidy", or funds that are paid through the town's tax levy and/or general fund.

In FY'19, that "subsidy" was decreased by roughly $58,000 from the year prior's $525,000 appropriation, even though the cost of providing trash pickup services was actually expected to climb.

The town administrator's budget proposal also notes that initial versions of the spending plan called for increasing the subsidy from $525,000 in FY'18 to $685,000 this year.

Notably, based upon updated figures presented by Castellarin last week, had that $685,000 "subsidy" remained as initially budgeted, there would be no need to hike trash fee rates, as the budget would basically break even.

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