Reading, MA — In its second session on Thursday night, Town Meeting approved the Fiscal Year 2023 budget of $130,506,410 by a vote of 148-0. This amount includes water, sewer, stormwater, and PEG access enterprise expenditures, as well as the budgets for the municipal government and the school district. Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom began the discussion by highlighting that the town currently has $16,442,632 in free cash reserves or about 14.7% of annual municipal expenditures.
Angstrom continued, reporting that the town expects $84.8 million in revenue from property taxes in FY 2023. Additionally, there will be $26.8 million in revenue from other sources such as fees, state aid, and transfers. Two million seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars will be used from reserves to balance the budget. Finance Committee chair Ed Reed reported that the Finance Committee voted 6-0 on March 15 to recommend the budget to Town Meeting.
Town municipal government expenses including public safety, public works, the library, and other town services total $32.02 million. There is also $29.79 million in shared services such as debt service, employee benefits, and capital improvements.
Most of the discussion on the budget focused on the schools, which represents $51,783,363 of the budget. This is a $2,087,365 increase over FY 2022. Superintendent Thomas Milaschewski explained that $1,216,215 of the increase represents increases in the baseline budget, such as contracted raises and curriculum purchases. Eight hundred seventy-one thousand dollars of the increase is for new investments in priorities such as pandemic recovery for students, a march toward free full-day kindergarten, social, emotional, and health services, and enhanced academic offerings at Reading Memorial High School.
Town Meeting member Emily Sission inquired about the progress toward full-day kindergarten. School Committee chair Thomas Wise shared that the FY 2023 budget reflects a reduction in tuition, leading to a goal of free full-day kindergarten by 2025. He also indicated that an additional $1.2 million would need to be “found” in FY 2024, FY 2025, and FY 2026 to realize this goal. He committed the School Committee to work with the Select Board and with the municipal leadership to reach the goal.
Town Manager Fidel Maltez also shared that it is anticipated that residents’ water, sewer, and stormwater rates will have a combined increase of 2.2%. Maltez was quick to point out that the Select Board had not yet set the rates.
Select Board chair Mark Dockser opened the session with the annual State of the Town address. Dockser highlighted town accomplishments such as the $1.6 million in new growth in Fiscal Year 2022 and the beginning of the emergence from the pandemic. “Reading is a great place to live, work, and visit,” Dockser exclaimed. Dockser shared about Select Board initiatives including the downtown parking committee (PARC), the senior or community center committee (ReCALC), and the committee to recommend how to utilize best the $7.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief funds (RAAC). Dockser expressed excitement over what was to come as a result of the work of those groups. Dockser continued, imploring residents to find ways to unite, even in divisive political times.
“We need to focus on areas [where we agree],” Dockser concluded.
After the budget discussion, town meeting approved articles seven, nine, and ten. These transferred $468,500 towards Reading’s liability in its post-employee benefits account, amended the bylaw to add significant developments to the inspection revolving fund, and accepted the annual allocation plan for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Town Meeting member Barry Berman spoke suggesting that the Select Board develop a new strategy for using this fund for the creation of affordable housing in town. After an inquiry from Town Meeting member Vanessa Alvarado, Moderator Alan Foulds indicated that he would accept an instructional motion on the issue.
Town Meeting also approved Article eleven, the creation of a community garden revolving fund, and Articles twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, all dealing with water and drainage easements. To end the evening, Town Meeting approved borrowing in anticipation of receiving Chapter 90 funds for road improvement and also to accept Chapter 90 funds when they are received. Angstrom noted that the town has never had to borrow against those funds. Articles six, eight, sixteen, and nineteen were indefinitely postponed.
Town Meeting adjourned at 10:45 pm and will reconvene on Monday, May 2.