Town Meeting Approves $135 Million Budget

Reading, MA — After a thorough explanation by Town Manager Fidel Maltez and Town Accountant Sharon Angstrom, Town Meeting approved a Fiscal Year 2024 budget of $135,045,333 on Thursday night. This includes the budgets for schools, municipal expenses, and the enterprise funds. The approved budget represents an overall 4% increase over Fiscal Year 2023. Angstrom shared that the town will use $3,280,000 in free cash reserves in order to balance the budget. She also reported that she anticipates that after this usage, free cash reserves will still have a balance of $15,322,958. The article passed with few questions and little debate.

Town Meeting also approved Article eleven, which creates a special education reserve fund. School Department Director of Finance Susan Bottan shared that the fund will be used to pay for unexpected special education costs that may emerge during a school year. The school committee will place a portion of its unused funding from the general budget at the end of the fiscal year into the reserve fund until it is fully vested. The reserve fund can only be utilized by votes of both the School Committee and the Select Board. 

The Finance Committee (FinCom) had previously discussed the issue at length, recognizing that adoption of the article might have the effect of reducing the amount the school department “returns” to free cash each year, but FinCom also recognized the budget stability that the fund could provide. On Thursday night, FinCom reported that it recommended the article to Town Meeting.

School Committee member Thomas Wise added that establishment of the fund will allow the School Committee to budget for other educational needs more aggressively, while maintaining a “safety net” for unexpected special education costs.

“It will allow us to strategically use the funds going forward,” Wise explained. 

Community Services Director Genevieve Fiorente presented Article fourteen, which asked Town Meeting to transfer funds from other completed projects to fully fund phase one of the Birch Meadow Improvement project. The Select Board previously authorized $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for the project, but the bids to complete the project came in $1.22 million higher than anticipated. Fiorente proposed to fund the difference through debt which has already been authorized and borrowed, but was not needed for other projects. These include $600,000 from the Parker Middle School roof project and $180,000 from the Police Station renovation project.

The article also asked Town Meeting to allow the use of $440,000 from the 40R District Incentive payments from the state. This last source of funding has a balance of $917,000 and can only be used for capital projects.

Several Town Meeting members had questions regarding the project and the funding. Member Bill Brown suggested that the building of a pavilion in the center of Birch Meadow would encourage the reemergence of rats and other vermin. While member David Talbot questioned the rationale for more parking at the site. Fiorente explained that there is a lack of parking available at the site now and also confirmed the new lot would provide a safe space for pick up and drop off for the Coolidge Middle School.

Member Martha Moore asked why extra funds from the “turf 2” project could not be used as it was borrowed for a project in Birch Meadow. Maltez explained that the extra authorized funding for “turf 2” had never been borrowed. Moore, who is also a member of the Conservation Commission, continued to share that the inclusion of the impervious surface and stormwater management of the new lot had been reviewed and approved by the commission.

Town Meeting member John Sullivan questioned if the project would address the standing water issues that exist on the current pathway leading to “turf 2.” Fiorente shared that it would.

Select Board member Karen Herrick “applauded” the creativity used in determining the sources for the extra funding. Town Meeting member Angela Binda also reminded Town Meeting that the project had been “fully vetted” through multiple meetings and public input sessions over several years. The motion under Article fourteen passed by a vote of 134-2.

Town Meeting adjourned at 10:40pm and will reconvene on Monday night at 7:30 pm.

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