Town Meeting Approves $141 Million Budget

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Reading, MA — By a show of hands, Town Meeting approved a $141,338,332 Fiscal Year 2025 budget on Monday night. This budget, which includes funding for municipal and school departments, as well as water, sewer, stormwater, and PEG access enterprise funds. The approved budget represents a combined 4.5% increase over FY 2024. According to Chief Financial Officer Sharon Angstrom, the final payment for Reading Memorial High School and the Wood End Elementary School will be in FY 2024, with the final payment for the Reading Public Library coming in FY 2025.

Angstrom also explained that the approved budget would use $4.26 million in free cash reserves to bring it into balance—seven hundred thousand dollars of which are for capital expenditures. As of July 2023, Angstrom reported, the town’s reserves totaled $19,497,062, of which $15,393053 will remain if used in this budget. This accounts for 12.9% of total revenues. The Finance Committee’s guidance is for the town to retain 7% of total revenues in its reserves.

Town Manager Matt Kraunelis reviewed budgets for each of the municipal departments totaling $35.39 million. He reported that the municipal budget does not anticipate creating new positions in the coming fiscal year.

Thomas Milaschewski, Superintendent Reading Public Schools

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Milaschewski reported that, like the municipal government, the school department is committed to seeking grants to extend initiatives. He thanked the town for the $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding that was used for an update to the literacy curriculum, which began its implementation last year. Milaschewski credited the new curriculum with advances in literacy test scores for Reading students. He also mentioned a $317,000 grant from the state for innovative high school design at RMHS.

Milaschewski continued, sharing the recommended $56,310,811 budget with the members of Town Meeting. He shared that the budget includes an additional .6 full-time equivalent (FTE) speech and language pathologist and a .5 FTE teacher in the Joshua Eaton Elementary School LEAD program. Three of the counseling positions at the secondary level that have been funded by Esser grants have also been folded into the budget. 

School Committee chair Thomas Wise continued the presentation, reporting that the committee had successfully completed negotiations with all five of its unions before they were due, avoiding the labor difficulties seen in some other communities. He also reported that the proposed budget continues the track of making full-day kindergarten free for residents in the 2025-2026 school year.

Town Meeting member Bill Brown

Once budget presentations were completed, Moderator Alan Foulds asked for discussion on the budget line item by line item. Town Meeting member Bill Brown proposed an amendment to reduce the Public Services salaries line item by $98,000, eliminating the economic development director position. 

“There is no return on investment for this position,” Brown declared.

Town Meeting member and local business owner Liz Whitlam disagreed. She shared how the director aided her in starting her business with income and demographic information as well as pointed her towards available properties in which to house her business. She also added that the director “shepherded” businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic and has been responsible for over $1 million in grants to the town. “That’s a pretty good return investment,” Whitelam added.

Kraunelis stepped in to mention that the economic development director position is the “bridge” from town government to the local business community and has been reworked with some Planning Department responsibilities as well. The amendment failed to pass.

Town Meeting member Linda Snow Dockser also asked questions regarding pay rates for substitute teachers and member John O’Neil regarding fees for extracurricular activities. After all the discussion was concluded, the vote was taken, and the budget passed easily.

Under Article 16, Town Meeting voted to remove Richard Bova as a member for lack of attendance. He has missed seven consecutive Town Meeting sessions.

Instructional Motions

Town Meeting then chose to take Article Three, instructional motions, off the table. It quickly voted to approve two instructional motions made by Snow Dockser, one asking the Select Board to adopt a policy similar to the school department’s regarding an accommodation policy for meetings and one-time events held on religious and ethnic holidays, and the other asking the town to consider creating a land acknowledgment policy to increase awareness and sensitivity regarding the original peoples that used the land on which Reading now sits.

Town Meeting member John Sasso

Town Meeting also approved an instructional motion from member John Sasso asking the Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) and the Bylaw Committee to develop zoning and general bylaws regarding outdoor lighting for residential properties. Resident Marcel Dubois presented the article and suggested that such a bylaw could “reduce light pollution and promote energy conservation” in town. He added that fifty-four communities in the Commonwealth have adopted such bylaws.

By a vote of 52-85, Town Meeting chose not to approve an instructional motion asking CPDC and town staff to use a list of five criteria proposed by Sasso when developing its plan for compliance with the MBTA Communities law. Sasso argued that the five ideas, which include a request that the town only propose minimum compliance with the law, have risen out of the public meetings on the topic. Several members spoke against the article, stating that town staff have been very receptive to public input on the matter and that the proposal by Sasso would limit the work that would be accomplished by the funding appropriated for the task last Thursday night.

Town Meeting also chose not to approve a motion by member Melissa Murphy asking for a forum this spring or early in the fall where the “real costs” to the taxpayer for all the current debt exclusion projects under consideration and the Community Preservation Act would be disclosed. The forum would also share timelines and other information regarding the projects. 

Those opposed to the motion argued that the Finance Committee’s financial forums already cover these matters and that a meeting, as proposed by Murphy, would prove unwieldy at best.

Select Board member Mark Dockser also argued that while “everyone is correct” in wanting full disclosure of the costs and potential impacts of the proposed projects, the complete information is not yet available. He pointed to the Killam Elementary School project, where the decision has not yet been made about what type of project it will be. The same is true for a possible new senior center. 

The motion failed by a close 66-70 vote. 

Town Meeting adjourned sine die at 11:30 pm without considering two final instructional motions.

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