Reading, MA — After three and a half hours of discussion, voting, and debate, The Finance Committee (FinCom) voted 8-0 to recommend a revised municipal and school Fiscal Year 2021 budget of $104,167,178 to Town Meeting on Monday, May 18. This budget removed over $1.5 million from the previously recommended budget and reflects forecasts of reduced revenue from state and local resources as a result of the COVID-19 emergency. FinCom, by a vote of 8-0, is also recommending the use of $2,018,000 from the town’s free cash reserves to balance the budget. This is $768,000 more than the pre-COVID budget.
Town Manager Robert LeLacheur and Superintendent of Schools John Doherty had presented a smaller revised budget to FinCom last week. After continued review, four specific items were added back into the proposed budget: a full-time human resources/payroll specialist for the school department, a part-time human resources/payroll specialist for the municipal side, return of the suggested one percent reduction in the cost of living adjustments (COLA) for non-represented employees and an additional $100,000 to be added to the FinCom budget to cover additional unknown COVID-19 related expenses that may occur.
School Committee Chair Chuck Robinson opened the meeting advocating for the HR/payroll positions and for the COLA. Robinson deemed asking non-represented personnel to “take the hit” for the COVID situation as “unfair.” School Committee member Shawn Brandt suggested that as the HR/payroll position is central to the goals of the school department and that restoring it should be given every consideration. School Department Director of Finance Gail Dowd added that there was no internal redundancy for the school department HR/payroll specialist in the case of absence or illness and that even on Monday they had to pay for a temporary worker to cover the role. Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom continued, stating that redundancy in this area is “crucial” to the smooth operation of the department.
While most of FinCom seemed to agree that the HR/payroll positions were needed, there was extended debate regarding the restoration of the COLA. FinCom Chair Eric Burkhart expressed reservations about using free cash to cover “operating expenses” as it was unsustainable in the long term. While agreeing in principle, Select Board member Vanessa Alvarado declared that “it is not right to disproportionately affect” non-represented employees. FinCom member Paula Perry agreed, reminding the FinCom that they were, “designing and building a shelter in the middle of a hurricane.” She also suggested that the November Town Meeting could be used to correct any changes that need to be made. School Committee member Thomas Wise cautioned on the optics of restoring the full COLA to employees, when up to 20 percent of the residents of the town may be unemployed.
What emerged was a debate between the philosophy of the correct use of free cash reserves and the uniqueness of the situation and the potential inequity it could cause. The extended debate continued back and forth until Burkhart called for a vote.
The initial FinCom vote on the issue led to a 4-4 tie. After another round of discussion, covering the same territory, a final vote was taken, this time unanimous in favor of the restoration of the full COLA.
FinCom also voted, recommending revised versions of Articles four and five of the Town Meeting warrant, both unanimously. LeLacheur updated the assembled committees on the expected truncated Town Meeting on June 15, one that will only include articles that need attention this spring, such as the FY 2021 budget. The remainder of the articles will be postponed to November.
FinCom adjourned at 10:35 pm.